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Stein Mart Inc., an off-price specialty department store chain, is expected to open its first New York State store in Amherst next spring.

The Jacksonville, Fla.-based chain confirmed Friday it plans to open a store in the Buffalo area in the second quarter of 1998.

Susan Datz Edelman, Stein Mart's director of stockholder relations, said the fast-growing chain employs a unique merchandise concept.

"We describe ourselves as a hybrid between a traditional department store and a traditional off-price store," Ms. Datz Edelman said. "We look like a department store, with fashion grouped by style, but our prices are 25 percent to 60 percent off what you'd pay in a traditional department store."

Stein Mart stores focus heavily on current-season moderate to designer brand name apparel for women, with smaller collections of men's and children's clothing. The merchandise selection also includes: accessories, gifts, linens and shoes.

The spokeswoman said the company tends to enter markets with just a single store, initially, adding locations as the market warrants. Local real estate sources indicated Stein Mart is working with Buffalo's Benderson Development Co. in its site-selection process.

Sources said the first store will likely open in Benderson's huge Boulevard Consumer Square project, on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst. That spot fits with Stein Mart's site preferences, according to Ms. Datz Edelman.

"We tend to locate in strip centers near traditional department stores and near neighborhoods with upscale demographics," she said.

The company's stores are typically 38,000 square feet in size.

While the first Stein Mart in New York is expected to be in the Buffalo area, the company also is looking at sites in Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, as it continues an expansion blitz that has seen a 22.8 percent increase in size since the end of 1996.

Stein Mart will have opened 11 new stores between mid-August and the end of this month, expanding its stable to 151 stores in 26 states. The chain's northernmost locations are currently in Allentown, Pa., and Youngstown, Ohio.

The publicly traded company also has seen its stock price soar in the past year, from a low of 17 3/4 on Oct. 31, 1996, to a record high of 34 1/8 on Oct. 6. The stock closed at 31-1 5/1 6 in Friday's Nasdaq trading.

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