San Francisco-based apparel giant Gap plans to test whether followers of its Petaluma-based Athleta online brand want to be able to "get physical" with the athlete-oriented women's activewear before they purchase.

Earlier this month Gap, which acquired Athleta in September 2008 for $150 million, started advertising for staff to test Athleta stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, according to an online job posting. The first one is planned to open in Strawberry Village Shopping Center in Mill Valley in late spring.

"Leveraging its brand strength and customer loyalty in the catalog and e-commerce channels, Athleta is currently testing a store expression of the brand," the posting read.

A Gap spokesman Daniel Rubin confirmed the plan but declined to elaborate.

"We're testing a prototype to learn what works best for this athletic customer," he said.

Athleta is part of Gap Inc. Direct, described as a "high-growth division." Division sales grew to $1.12 billion for the fiscal year ending in January, more than double the $563 million in revenue in fiscal 2004, while store sales slipped nearly 17 percent to $13.1 billion in that timeframe, according to Gap. Sales of the direct-only brands Athleta and Piperline increased from $36 million in the fiscal fourth quarter of 2008 to $54 million in the 13 weeks ending in January.

Retail strategic marketing consultant Molly Robbins of LicenZing in San Rafael said a physical presence for a "solid brand" such as Athleta is advantageous but the timing is "really challenging." She pointed to Vancouver-based yogawear retailer Lululemon, which started at the same time as Athleta, serves a similar 22- to 55-year-old active woman demographic and rapidly expanded its brick-and-mortar presence.

However, tightening consumer purse strings because of the economy and an influx of competitors, such as department stores Macy's, Nordstrom and Victoria's Secret's VSX Sport brand, pinch some of the estimated $36 billion in profits for women's activewear, according to Ms. Robbins.


Novato-based ClairMail's lease of 12,000 square feet in San Rafael Corporate Center is part of 30,000 square feet in leasing at the property, according to Seagate Properties.

Independent brokerage Guarantee Mortgage Corp., which has more than a dozen offices in the Bay Area, Oregon and Hawaii, plans to relocate its headquarters from Larkspur Landing to 7,000 square feet in the center.

Two current tenants are expanding.

Employment, construction and business law firm Parton Sell Rhoades, which launched in the property in 2008, looked around for expansion space from Greenbrae to the Terra Linda area of north San Rafael but settled on a deal for 5,000 square feet in the same property.

Private Ocean, a financial planning and investment management firm formerly known as Salient-Friedman Wealth Management, also recently renewed its lease, expanding by 4,500 square feet.


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