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Stein Mart looks to better times in 2004

Brian Carroll, Cecile Corral -- Home Textiles Today, March 22, 2004

Stein Mart attributed its improving performance to a television ad campaign launched last year, its partnership with home designer Raymond Waites, the elimination of some promotional initiatives and cleaner inventories.

"We made some tough decisions in mid-2003, and, as expected, we paid a heavy price for them in year-over-year results," said Michael Fisher, president and CEO, during the retailer's fourth quarter conference call last week. "2003 is behind us. And while we are glad that it is, we are encouraged by a number of signs that began to appear toward the end of the year."

He added that the spring season to date "is far greatly advantaged over last year."

The two "biggest" decisions the apparel, accessories and home goods retailer made in 2003, Fisher said, were the closing of 16 stores and the elimination of full-price coupons.

The TV campaign has helped attract new customers in existing markets and laid groundwork for entry into new markets.

The addition of Raymond Waites Home products has resulted in similar benefits, Fisher explained.

An effort that began in January and has already yielded results is improved cleanliness of inventories.

"Our inventory is remarkably cleaner this year than last year," Fisher said. "We've already had a very good response to our clearance cadence, and we're very confident with our ability to liquidate prior season goods."

Price point mark-up intensity is expected to remain strong, as it was during the fourth quarter.

"Our initiative is not just to reduce mark-downs and improve mark-ups, although that is certainly, in the best instance, what you want to achieve," Fisher said. "We will monitor it on a month-by-month basis."

This year the chain is closing down six units, which in 2003 posted operating losses of $1.3 million.

Stein Mart will later this year discuss the progress of its four Collection Stores units, two of which are in California — Pasadena and Rancho Palace Verdes; a third in Hendersonville, N.C.; and the fourth in Amelia Island, Fla.

"We wanted to open these four stores, which is what we came out with initially, and see them operate for a while, because each one of them is in a different kind of environment," Fisher said. "We'll make our judgments when we get a little more experience, and later in the year talk about how we plan to go forward with it."

The chain has made some point-of-sale and customer service changes to the collection stores already, some of which have been applied to a few regular Stein Mart units.

"We've learned some things we're adapting into normal Stein Mart stores in terms of how we facilitate customer service and align our cash registers," he added. "But these related to process and structure rather than merchandise directed."

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