NEW YORK CITY-Liz Claiborne plans to expand its specialty retail division to 100 to 125 stores annually for the foreseeable future despite a tough fourth quarter and planned streamlining of its overall business. The company could eventually support 1,400 domestic specialty stores in seven chains and possibly up to 2,000, up from its current total of 338, says Paul Charron, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer.

After reporting an earnings-per-share drop during its Q4, to 74 cents from 75 cents during the same year-ago period, Charron announced that the company will lay off 500 people and close 20 stores in its non-growth chains. Those moves should result in a savings of between $60 million and $65 million next year and help with the company’s acquisition and retail growth strategy, he says.

In the near term, the Liz chain that will see the biggest growth is 105-store Lucky Brand jeans chain, which is forecast of 35 to 40 US openings this year, as well as three to five in Europe (on top of its two units in the continent) and its first two in Canada. Its Sigrid Olsen chain, with 45 units, will come in second this year with 20 to 25 openings as well as two in Canada.

Juicy Couture, the high-end, casual-fashion chain will see its three-store base increase dramatically, with 10 to 15 new locations this year. Mexx, which has 506 stores mostly in Europe, will open 15 units, and executives are looking at expansion plans for the brand in France, Germany, Italy and the Middle East.

Besides its expansion plans, the company, which was recently outbid to acquire the J. Jill chain, is also looking to acquire stores. “We are currently looking at multiple M&A opportunities and are encouraged by what we see,” Charron says.

By the end of the company’s Q4 on Dec. 31, retail sales accounted for 25% of the company’s total business, up from 16% in 2000. Executives plan to increase that figure to 29% by the end of the year.

Retail sales accounted for $368 million of the company’s $1.2-billion total sales during the fourth quarter and were up 10.4%. Same-store sales in the specialty division rose 6% year-over-year during the period, including a 14.1% comp jump at Lucky. Meanwhile, the retailer’s 321 outlet stores posted a 2% same-store sales increase.

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