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NEW YORK CITY-With developers canceling or postponing projects due to the downturn, Barnes & Noble has cut its planned store openings for 2009 and is carefully negotiating lease renewals, executives said at the company’s third-quarter conference call. Originally planning to open 20 to 25 new stores next year, the company now is reducing that count to approximately 15 new units, which includes nine relocations, in 2009. However, real opportunity lies in its existing stores.

“We have hundreds of leases up for renewals over the next few years,” said CFO Joseph Lombardi. “We generally have high-quality real estate in terms of our centers and co-tenancies. This real estate flexibility, coupled with the strength of our balance sheet overall, will enable us to manage our business as efficiently as possible.”

As the pool of big boxes continues to decline, the company is using its increased leverage with landlords to negotiate favorable terms. The company has renegotiated 77 leases so far this year, and “at almost each and every one, we’re paying less in the out years,” said COO Mitchell Klipper. “The leases coming up are clearly an opportunity for the company. We’ll see how big it gets.”

Sales for the third quarter were $1.1 billion, a 4.4% decrease from the prior year. Comparable store sales decreased 7.4% for the quarter. Barnes & Noble.com sales were $109 million for the quarter, a 2% comparable sales increase compared to last year. The third quarter net loss was $18.4 million, which included a non-cash after-tax impairment charge of $7 million.

Steve Riggio, CEO, attributed at least some of the sales decline to the lack of media coverage of new books, as it focused on the presidential election and economic crisis. With the election complete, “[attention] is starting to come,” Riggio said. “”We hope things get back to where they were before.”

Still, given the sharp economic downturn and slowing traffic, the company expects fourth-quarter comparable-store sales at Barnes & Noble stores to decline 6% to 9%. As of Nov. 1, the company operated 728 Barnes & Noble stores and 71 B. Dalton stores.

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