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Buffalo's retail market gains a new national chain today with the debut of Stein Mart, an upscale, off-price apparel retailer, at 7992 Transit Road in Amherst.

Florida-based Stein Mart offers shoppers designer merchandise at outlet mall prices in surroundings that resemble traditional department stores, according to spokeswoman Judie Taggart.

"Our target customer is an upscale customer looking for value," Ms. Taggart said. "When you walk into Stein Mart you have the impression you are entering a regular department store, but our first quality, current season merchandise is priced at least 20 percent below traditional retailers."

The 39,000-square-foot store -- the chain's first in New York state -- took over space that has been home to several high-profile businesses in the past 20 years. Most recently it housed the ill-fated Premier Gourmet store, but it was originally home to a Bells Supermarket, followed by stints as Syms and Freddie's Deep Discount.

Stein Mart has been described as "an off-price Neiman Marcus," stocking goods with high-end designer labels such as Gucci, Chanel and Bob Mackie Studio, along with lesser brands.

The chain is able to offer the merchandise at a substantial discount through its buying and shipping practices, which employ daily direct-to-store deliveries. The so-called "drop ship" methods are designed to allow Stein Mart to skip the need for expensive warehouses and distribution employees.

In addition to ladies, womens, petites, juniors and children's departments, Stein Mart also features men's and "big and tall" men's collections.

Each store's boutique area carries women's apparel in the $100 to $300 range, with special-occasion clothing with price tags that approach $500 to $600. An unusual aspect of Stein Mart is its Boutique Women program, where up to 20 local women are recruited to work one day per week as a combination fashion coordinators/community ambassadors/customer relations staffers. The chain has an active group of some 2,600 Boutique Women in 26 states.

"They help us tailor each Stein Mart to the individual community. They are our eyes and ears to help us know what the shopper is looking for," the spokeswoman said.

The stores also feature gift shops, shoe, accessory and linen departments.

Ms. Taggart said the company is on the hunt for locations elsewhere upstate, as well as in the Buffalo market. "We're making a strong push for more stores," she said.

At present Stein Mart stores extend from San Jose, Calif., to Milwaukee, Wis., to South Florida. Founded in 1904 in Greenville, Miss., by Russian immigrant Sam Stein, the company went public in 1992.

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