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Stein Mart touts its price-cutting approach

If a Stein Mart opens in the former Maas Brothers building in downtown Clearwater, the main difference shoppers may notice between the two stores is lower prices.

Like the former Maas Brothers, the nearest Stein Mart, in Palm Harbor, has a department-store look. Stein Mart also features the latest fashions for men, women and children, with a sales staff and displays similar to the former Maas Brothers.

"We definitely have lower prices but we do have the same caliber merchandise," said Steve Simmons, manager of the Palm Harbor Stein Mart.

One difference in the two stores is that Stein Marts do not carry stereos, TVs, small appliances, fine china or furniture, as Maas Brothers did.

Officials with the Stein Mart chain, based in Jacksonville, have approached Clearwater city leaders about the possibility of renting the ground floor of the former Maas Brothers building from the city. A draft agreement calls for the company to pay $150,000 a year for the space, plus 2.5 percent of any sales in excess of $4.5 million.

The Maas Brothers store closed in September 1991, and the city bought the building for $1.9-million. Commissioners are scheduled to discuss Stein Mart's offer for the vacant building on Thursday.

Stein Mart, which has 67 stores in 16 states, says its prices are 25 percent to 60 percent lower than retail department store prices. It has lower overhead from having locations in such places as strip shopping centers instead of malls. It sells more merchandise at a lower per-unit profit, Simmons said.

Stein Marts buy most of their goods direct from manufacturers, cutting a middle step that some department stores may take.

Stein Marts offer reputable brands in such things as clothing and crystal gift ware. But the chain is forbidden from identifying those labels in advertisements or news stories because the manufacturers don't want retail outlets to be harmed by a discount chain, Simmons said.

At the Palm Harbor store, designer women's shorts in denim are tagged with a retail price of $29 and a Stein Mart price of $16.97. A man's necktie lists a retail price of $25 and a Stein Mart price of $12.97.

In the gift and housewares department, four brand-name, tri-colored wine glasses in mauve and green with a touch of amber list a retail price of $45 and a Stein Mart price of $26.97.

The store sells such things as glass decanters, vases and collectible crystal that costs as much as $1,800.

The Palm Harbor store sells costume jewelry and some sterling silver, but no gold, Simmons said.

A pair of women's flat, leather name-brand shoes started at $38 but were marked down to $15.

The store also has a boutique, where well-known women from the community work one day a week, selling famous maker clothes.

Some customers say they drive long distances to shop there.

Jess and Gladys Williams of Largo said they travel to the Palm Harbor store and to one of the two Stein Marts in Tampa to shop for clothing, linens and housewares.

"Almost all my clothes come from here," said Mrs. Williams, who is 73. "I like the quality and the price."

"They've got the best pajamas," said Mr. Williams, 74.

Some say they find things at Stein Mart they wouldn't find elsewhere.

"They have things you wouldn't find at a mall," said Ruth Hepp, 36, of Oldsmar, who bought a lined silk skirt and a silk blouse for about $60. She also picked out some jewelry to go with the outfit and bought a bread basket and salt and pepper set.

Among the unusual finds Tuesday:

_ In the jewelry department, for $1.47, a pair of converters that change pierced earrings to clips.

_ In the men's department, a pair of glow-in-the-dark boxer shorts with teddy bears for $7.97.

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