WILMINGTON, Del. -- James M. McVicker, vice president and chief financial officer of Mercantile Stores Co., knocked down widespread rumors that the company was for sale Wednesday.

Speaking at the annual meeting here, he said, "The company is not for sale, and it is not in any discussions regarding this type of activity."

His statement was a response to speculation that May Department Stores Co. has been eyeing Mercantile as a possible takeover candidate.

"Although it is company policy not to comment on rumors, the speculation recently has been incredible." said McVicker. "The rumors have been quite distracting for the company and its associates."

McVicker told stockholders the company is not planning any further restructuring and would begin to focus its efforts on corporate growth.

Within the last several months, Mercantile merged its Denver-based Joslins with the Kansas City-based Jones Store. The company also shuffled key executives at its Gayfers/J.B. White division.

All told, in the Last three years, Mercantile has consolidated its divisional operations from 11 to five. Each group has its own buying office, with a corporate buying entity headquartered in Fairfield, Ohio.

The chain, which operates moderate-to-better department stores, is looking to expand into new areas, said McVicker. In the past, he noted, the company's growth was predominantly centered around existing markets.

"We are going to be opening some replacement stores in existing markets, like Denver, for example. For the most part, though, we're looking to new cities," said McVicker.

This year, Mercantile will open stores in Hattiesburg, Miss., and Dayton, Ohio. The Dayton store will be approximately 40 miles from the company's Cincinnati unit.

"I could see maybe three or four stores in the Dayton area," McVicker noted.

James Cain, administrative vice president and former vice president of merchandising, noted sales in the women's and children's department are off to a slow start in the second quarter, but declined to be more specific.

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