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NANTUCKET, MA-Leading arts and crafts retailer A.C. Moore plans to take its chain of specialty stores national within the next few years as it moves to dominate the fragmented $60 billion a year arts and craft market, company president and chief operating officer Lawrence H. Fine said Thursday.

Speaking at the 15th Annual Wachovia Securities Conference on Nantucket, MA, Fine said the company, already a dominant force on the East Coast, intends to expand by 15 stores in 2005 and add another 20 outlets in 2006 in areas served by its southern New Jersey distribution center. In 2004, the company added 15 stores to its operations for a total of 98 stores in 15 states spanning Maine to Alabama.

“Our growth opportunity is very, very big,” said Fine, noting that the firm intends to double its current 98 stores in the eastern region within the next few years, potentially moving to the national level.

Financially, the Berlin, NJ-based retailer of arts and craft supplies is in good shape to fulfill its expansion plans. With average per store sales of $5.8 million and with only $30 million in debt from the construction last year of a 775,000 sf distribution facility and corporate headquarters, A.C. Moore sits on solid financial ground.

“We’ve a very strong balance sheet.” Fine said. “Our cash position is more than capable of supporting our growth plans.”

The company’s sales for the first quarter ending March 31, 2005 grew 10.2% to $122.9 million, an increase of $11.4 million over the same quarter of 2004. Net income for the quarter also was up rising from $1.23 million, or 6 cents per diluted share the first quarter of 2004 to $1.25 million, or 6 cents per fully diluted share, during the same period for 2005.

Sales last year also were strong, showing a 14% increase over 2003, Fine said. Those strong sales figures, which top retailers such as Bed Bath & Beyond, PetSmart, Linens ‘n Things and Dicks, make A.C. Moore a force to contend with in the arts and crafts market, Fine said.

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