NEW YORK — With the American woman getting larger and the larger woman’s number one specialty store now starring in its stable, Charming Shoppes has set its sights on becoming the plus-size authority.

When it added the 650 units of leading plus-size brand Lane Bryant from Limited Inc. last July for $335 million in cash and stock to its arsenal of moderate and plus-size stores, CS positioned itself at the top of the plus-size specialty market. Its new crown jewel gave the Bensalem, Pa.-based retailer a presence in all plus-size markets by offering merchandise to women of different income levels, fashion sensibilities, ages and preferred shopping environments.

It also allowed CS to leapfrog over some of its specialty store competition. The acquisition firmly entrenched the company, with 2,494 stores and $2.5 billion in pro forma annual sales, as the third-largest apparel specialty chain, behind only Gap and The Limited.

At a luncheon sponsored by Bear, Stearns last month, Dorrit J. Bern, chairwoman, president and chief executive officer, told a group of investors that the company is in the process of repositioning itself as a more focused plus-size retailer by expanding its plus-size mix to 72 percent of sales with the addition of Lane Bryant, compared with 57 percent in 2000. The company said it expects to increase its plus-size business to the mid-80 percent range of the firm’s total revenues.

“What we don’t want is to be too competitive,” Bern said, referring to the possibility of overexpanding and competing with itself. “We are dominating a new market, which is the fastest-growing sector in women’s apparel.”

Company executives said the purchase of Lane Bryant is a major step in its long-term plus-size growth strategy and should be viewed as a positive step by Wall Street because it enables CS to have a brand positioned in every segment of the plus-size consumer group without a substantial overlap. CS said its various nameplates collectively could capture “share of wallet” regardless of the customer’s fashion preference, age or income — from the youthful and fashion-minded to those looking for more classic and traditional styles; from strip centers to malls; for those aged 18 to 65 and for income levels ranging from $25,000 to $75,000 and up.

“We have the name of every plus-size customer,” Bern said, adding that CS has roughly 18 million names stored in its database. “I would be shocked if one slipped through.” The names were obtained through loyalty and credit card programs as well as customer sign-ups.

Carmen Monaco, vice president of corporate marketing at CS, said the firm is currently in the throes of combining the three concepts into a single database of core customer names that the company could use in the future for marketing purposes.

“We could better serve the customer by understanding her shopping patterns, needs, preferences — if she shops for shoes or T-shirts,” he said, in order to communicate directly to her, or her family, the new products or sale items she would like to have. “Once we get an understanding of the customers and what their affinity is for each brand, we can talk to them on individual basis with more accuracy.”

For example, Monaco said CS could send promotional material about a new shorts and T-shirt campaign to customers living in Florida, while at the same time offering customers living in the Northeast information on a coat clearance. Down the road, CS could send a letter prior to Mother’s Day or the holiday season detailing purchase possibilities.

Lane Bryant gives CS a commanding role in the moderately priced, fashionable plus-size market, an area from which it was excluded. CS said it can compete with the likes of The Avenue and Ann Taylor, which rang up $419 million and $20 million, respectively, in plus-size revenues in 2000. Lane Bryant, which is based in malls, aims to serve young women with a moderate income and offers trendier, sexier plus-size apparel than its sister divisions.

The company’s two other plus-size divisions also enjoy respective top-perch status. Catherine’s Plus Sizes — which targets 40- to 65-year-old women with a lower moderate to moderate income level and offers classic apparel choices — took in $316 million plus-size apparel sales dollars in 2000, while its competitors, Talbots and Dress Barn, tallied $100 million and $178 million, respectively. In addition, CS has a fleet of Fashion Bug Plus stores, which caters to a younger, more hip customer than Catherine’s and serves women aged 20 to 49 years old who have a low to moderate level income. Both of these chains are primarily located in strip centers.

To improve sales and earnings, Bern said she plans enlarge the store base in both mall and strip centers. To begin, she said she plans to expand Lane Bryant — which now controls 21 percent of the plus-size specialty market and rang up $930 million in sales last year — to 1,000 stores, with growth in both mall and strip centers over the next four to five years, starting in 2003 through new stores and to a smaller extent conversion of Fashion Bug stores.

Another source of growth for CS, Bern said, would come from doubling the number of units of its 457-unit Catherine’s Plus Sizes division, which is now in a third of all major markets and caters to an older customer than Lane Bryant.

According to research by NPD Data, the plus-size market is a $20 billion business whose growth of 11 percent in 2000 clearly outpaced the total women’s apparel market, which advanced 3 percent. This market is expected to get even larger as baby boomers succumb to age and as more women participate in sports and weight training.

Brian Tunick, retail analyst with Bear, Stearns, said he believes the company “possesses sound strategies to begin leveraging the dominant position it holds in the fastest-growing retail segment. We feel that it is only a matter of time before the company will have the wind at its back instead of in its face, and there could be significant operating margin upside from current levels.”

Tunick applauded the company’s Lane Bryant purchase. “Anytime a company has the chance to buy the number one brand in its industry, it should because it will help bring up profitability,” he said.

However, for now, CS’s number one goal, Tunick said, is to pare down its $335 million debt load that it has carried since acquiring Lane Bryant. While possible to do, Tunick said the company should also focus on getting its Fashion Bug core business back on track, and by converting Fashion Bug, which took in $110 in sales per square foot compared to Lane Bryant’s $290.

Charming Shoppes was able to squeeze out net income of $160,000, or zero cents a share, for the most recent quarter, which ended Nov. 3. That is 97.8 percent below the $7.4 million, or 7 cents, reached last year. Including sales from Lane Bryant, sales rose 51 percent, to $549.3 million from $363.8 million, but advanced 4 percent on a comparable-store basis. Fourth-quarter earnings are projected to range from 1 to 3 cents a share, in line with Wall Street’s expectations of 2 cents for the January-ending quarter.