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ISSAQUAH, WA-Despite the slow economy, Costco Wholesale Corp. anticipates maintaining its historic expansion levels, executives said at the company’s third quarter conference call. Plans call for “at least” matching the 25 net stores that will open this year in 2009, said Richard A. Galanti, executive VP and CFO.

The company had originally planned to open 30 stores this year, with a few now moving into next year. “My guess would be in the high 20s, as we start in the low 30s and work down from there,” Galanti said. “It will be a strong 5% growth, working up to 6%.”

The downturn actually has helped the company to a degree both in terms of merchandise mix and potential locations. As specialty stores slow expansion plans, more good merchandise that normally would be taken by new stores is available to Costco.

“We’re the highest end discount business, and we’ll take it all,” Galanti said.

The same is true of anchor locations at major shopping centers, a real estate strategy the company is continuing to explore. Seeking Costco’s high transaction count, high-end anchors such as Neiman Marcus no longer object the co-tenancy, he said. And good spaces can be found.

“We want prime spots even in a down economy,” Galanti said. “The price doesn’t go down as much, but there is availability.”

Net sales for the third quarter of fiscal 2008 increased 13% from the previous year to $16.3 billion. Boosted by rising gasoline prices and the weak dollar respectively, comparable store sales rose 6% in the United States and 16% internationally for an 8% increase overall. Net income was $295.1 million, up from $224.0 million the previous year.

Costco currently operates 538 warehouses, consisting of 394 in the United States and Puerto Rico, 75 in Canada, 19 in the United Kingdom, six in Korea, five in Taiwan, eight in Japan and 31 in Mexico.

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