BOSTON-Stage Stores Inc. officials said Tuesday at a presentation that they plan on doubling their new store count from about 35 to 70 stores per year, with a goal of almost 1,200 stores. The presentation was at the CIBC World Markets Seventh Annual Consumer Growth Conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston.

The company currently has 667 stores in 33 states, with Bealls, Palais Royal and Stage throughout the South and Peebles throughout the Midwest, Southeast, and East. The stores, typically about 18,000 sf, carry name brand clothes, shoes and accessories, but are usually located in small towns of 8,000 to 10,000 people, and reaching a shopping audience of about 50,000.

The company emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August 2001, with about 342 stores. Since then, Jim Scarborough, chairman and CEO, says the company is moving forward, growing its sales from $875 million in 2002 to $1.6 billion expected this year. The secret, he says, is to know the customer, which in this case nine times out of 10 is female. Also, since the stores are in such a small town, there’s little competition, especially from big department stores trying to scale back into just larger markets. “Clearly, we understand how to operate in small markets, that’s what makes this all work,” he said in his presentation.

Andy Hall, president and chief operating officer, said in the presentation that the company hopes to ramp up to 70 stores per year in 2008. He said the acquisition of B.C. Moore & Sons Inc. in 2003, and the subsequent transformation of the 69 stores into the Peebles brand, showed that the company could handle such growth each year. “We’ve identified a third distribution center that’s going to come online in mid-2008,” Hall said during the presentation. “We have a distribution capacity right now for 860 stores, and a third center will take us up to 1,160 stores.”

The distribution site has been selected, and though Hall wouldn’t reveal the exact location (“we’re working on the economic assistance package from the state”), he says the store will be in the tri-state region of western Ohio, eastern Indiana or northern Kentucky. The company plans to spend up to $16 million on the new center, expected to be about 150,000 sf to 200,000 sf.

The company has identified 260 new market areas near where it currently has stores, Hall said. Also, another 280 new market areas have been scoped nationwide, as the company could make its entry into California, Oregon, Washington and the rest of the West.

Hall said that the firm expects to growth in three merchandise areas: Plus sizes, shoes and cosmetics. Existing stores will be retrofitted to handle more of this merchandise, he said.

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