The Cato Corp, a specialty retailer of women's apparel with more than 850 stores, plans to expand from its Southern base into new markets, said the company's CEO, John Cato.

The moves are part of Cato's plans to become a national chain within five years. The company expects to open 65 stores in 2000 and plans to open 80-120 new stores per year for the next several years.

Mr Cato made his remarks to a crowd of 500 people in Charlotte during a dinner honouring The Cato Corp.

He also said the company is developing, with the help of an outside national design firm, a new store prototype scheduled to be rolled out beginning mid-2001 and is in the development and testing phase of installing an enterprise-wide system scheduled to be in operation over the next 12 to 24 months.