CINCINNATI -- Acquiring R.H. Macy & Co. is "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" for Federated Department Stores, James M. Zimmerman, president and chief operating officer of Federated, said Friday in an interview before Federated's annual meeting.

While noting that Federated officials were prevented from discussing the company's bid for Macy's, Zimmerman called it a "win-win" situation for Federated, either through the acquisition -- if it happens -- or enhancement of the company's investment if it does not.

Federated has purchased, at a discount, half of the $1 billion secured claim of The Prudential against Macy and has an option to buy the other half.

Federated is targeting 7 to 10 percent sales growth annually, executives of the company said at the annual shareholder's meeting here.

Federated's focus has been on aggressive growth since coming out of bankruptcy in 1992.

"In the last year, investments in stores and technology totaled $315 million," Allen I. Questrom, chairman and chief executive officer, told shareholders. "Over the next three years, our capital plan is $1.4 billion, which includes funds for remodeling stores, opening as many as 20 new stores and investing another $125 million in retail, distribution and sales-support technology."

Prior to the meeting, Questrom and Zimmerman said that in addition to the acquisition of the Horne's stores in western Pennsylvania, Federated this year will open six stores and replace three existing stores.

"These nine stores represent more new locations than in any one year in my memory," Questrom said.

As reported, Federated has been planning to open a 210,000-square-foot Bloomingdale's unit in Atlanta's Phipps Plaza in fall 1996 or spring '97. The board approved the project at the annual meeting. Zimmerman said Federated's target of 7 to 10 percent annual growth would come in the form of 3 to 4 percent from comparable stores "on a sustained basis," 2 to 3 percent from new stores on the existing base, plus acquisitions -- "every year or so doing a Horne's, or something like that."

Asked how quickly Federated expects to attain that growth rate, Questrom said, "This year we will probably be in that range."Commenting on specific actions Federated is taking to improve sales and earnings, Questrom said, "We believe the competition for us is outside the malls, from other forms of retailing which have eaten into department store gains in recent years."

Noting that department stores historically have been inefficient, he said an acquisition such as Macy's "and others like Horne's would enhance efficiencies."

"Last year, we further reduced expenses to 32.1 percent of sales from 34.2 percent in 1992," Questrom said. "This is a key component in our drive to deliver value to the customer and to promote top line sales growth, which is our primary objective in the year ahead."

Questrom said Federated has adopted a "wear now" focus, allocating more merchandise to the between-seasons periods of the first and fourth quarters.

"Right now, for instance, we are moving additional merchandise receipts into the current fiscal quarter -- actually 13 percent more than last year -- so we will have more wear-now merchandise to sell this summer.

"Instead of just clearing old inventory, we are bringing in fresh purchases that have been re-colored based on what is selling best.

"A constant complaint of our customers is there are no bathing suits in summer and no coats in winter. Hopefully, they will be able to find those things with our new strategy."

Questrom said sales of women's ready-to-wear were "quite good" in February and March, but stalled in April, probably due in part to less-than-expected income tax refunds, and added he is heartened by the new fashion directions in women's wear.

"We think sales are improving because of the change away from the 'grunge look' of the last couple of years. Women want something a little more traditional, a little more classic, a little more updated traditional, and we are starting to see their response on the selling floor.

"Dresses have been soft for the past several years, and we are starting to see a pickup there. The whole dress business has improved. Dresses are more wearable. Moderate sportswear has had strong growth in the last couple of months, but there is some slowness in better sportswear."

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