We are the leading operator of discount variety stores offering merchandise at the fixed price of $1.00. We believe the variety and quality of products we sell for $1.00 sets us apart from our competitors. At January 31, 2009, we operated 3,591 discount variety retail stores. Approximately 3,450 of these stores sell substantially all items for $1.00 or less. The remaining stores, operating as Deal$, which were acquired in or opened subsequent to March 2006, sell most items for $1.00 or less but also sell items for more than $1. Our stores operate under the names of Dollar Tree, Deal$ and Dollar Bills.
We believe our optimal store is between 8,000 and 10,000 selling square feet. This store size reflects our expanded merchandise offerings and improved service to our customers. As we have been expanding our merchandise offerings, we have added freezers and coolers to approximately 1,200 stores during the past four years to increase traffic and transaction size. At January 29, 2005, we operated 2,735 stores in 48 states. At January 31, 2009, we operated 3,591 stores in 48 states. Our selling square footage increased from approximately 20.4 million square feet in January 2005 to 30.3 million square feet in January 2009. Our store growth has resulted primarily from opening new stores with additional growth from mergers and acquisitions, such as Deal$.
Value Merchandise Offering. We strive to exceed our customers' expectations of the variety and quality of products that they can purchase for $1.00 by offering items that we believe typically sell for higher prices elsewhere. We buy approximately 55% to 60% of our merchandise domestically and import the remaining 40% to 45%. Our domestic purchases include closeouts. We believe our mix of imported and domestic merchandise affords our buyers flexibility that allows them to consistently exceed the customer's expectations. In addition, direct relationships with manufacturers permit us to select from a broad range of products and customize packaging, product sizes and package quantities that meet our customers' needs.
Mix of Basic Variety and Seasonal Merchandise. We maintain a balanced selection of products within traditional variety store categories. We offer a wide selection of everyday basic products and we supplement these basic, everyday items with seasonal and closeout merchandise. We attempt to keep certain basic consumable merchandise in our stores continuously to establish our stores as a destination and we have slightly increased the mix of consumable merchandise in order to increase the traffic in our stores. Closeout merchandise is purchased opportunistically and represents less than 10% of our purchases.
Our merchandise mix consists of: consumable merchandise, which includes candy and food, basic health and beauty care, and household consumables such as paper, plastics and household chemicals and in select stores, frozen and refrigerated food; variety merchandise, which includes toys, durable housewares, gifts, fashion health and beauty care, party goods, greeting cards, apparel, and other items; and seasonal goods, which include Easter, Halloween and Christmas merchandise, along with summer toys and lawn and garden merchandise.
We have added freezers and coolers to certain stores and increased consumable merchandise carried by those stores. We believe this initiative helps drive additional transactions and allows us to appeal to a broader demographic mix. We have added freezers and coolers to approximately 150 more stores in 2008. Therefore, as of January 31, 2009, we have freezers and coolers in approximately 1,200 of our stores. We plan to add them to approximately 175 more stores in 2009. As a result of the installation of freezers and coolers in select stores, consumable merchandise has grown as a percentage of purchases and sales and we expect this trend to continue. The following table shows the percentage of purchases of each major product group for the years ended January 31, 2009 and February 2, 2008:
At any point in time, we carry approximately 5,000 items in our stores and as of the end of 2008 approximately 1,300 of the basic, everyday items are on automatic replenishment. The remaining items are primarily ordered by our store managers on a weekly basis. Through automatic replenishment and our store managers’ ability to order product, each store manager is able to satisfy the demands of their particular customer base.
Customer Payment Methods. All of our stores accept cash, checks, debit cards, VISA credit cards and Discover and approximately 1,100 stores accept MasterCard credit cards. By the end of 2006 all of our stores accepted debit cards. We began accepting VISA credit cards at all of our stores in the fourth quarter of 2007. Along with the shift to more consumables, the rollout of freezers and coolers, and the acceptance of pin-based debit and VISA credit transactions, we increased the number of stores accepting Electronic Benefits Transfer(EBT) cards and food stamps in 2008. At January 31, 2009, we accept EBT and food stamps at approximately 2,200 stores. We believe that expanding our tender types has increased both the traffic and the average size of transactions at our stores in the year subsequent to implementation.
Convenient Locations and Store Size. We primarily focus on opening new stores in strip shopping centers anchored by mass merchandisers, whose target customers we believe to be similar to ours. Our stores have proven successful in metropolitan areas, mid-sized cities and small towns. The range of our store sizes allows us to target a particular location with a store that best suits that market and takes advantage of available real estate opportunities. Our stores are attractively designed and create an inviting atmosphere for shoppers by using bright lighting, vibrant colors, decorative signs and background music. We enhance the store design with attractive merchandise displays. We believe this design attracts new and repeat customers and enhances our image as both a destination and impulse purchase store.
For more information on retail locations and retail store leases, see Item 2 "Properties” beginning on page 13 of this Form 10-K.
Profitable Stores with Strong Cash Flow. We maintain a disciplined, cost-sensitive approach to store site selection in order to minimize the initial capital investment required and maximize our potential to generate high operating margins and strong cash flows. We believe that our stores have a relatively small shopping radius, which allows us to profitably concentrate multiple stores within a single market. Our ability to open new stores is dependent upon, among other factors, locating suitable sites and negotiating favorable lease terms.
The strong cash flows generated by our stores allow us to self-fund infrastructure investment and new stores. Over the past five years, cash flows from operating activities have exceeded capital expenditures.
Cost Control. We believe that our substantial buying power at the $1.00 price point and our flexibility in making sourcing decisions contributes to our successful purchasing strategy, which includes disciplined, targeted merchandise margin goals by category. We also believe our ability to select quality merchandise helps to minimize markdowns. We buy products on an order-by-order basis and have no material long-term purchase contracts or other assurances of continued product supply or guaranteed product cost. No vendor accounted for more than 10% of total merchandise purchased in any of the past five years.
Our supply chain systems continue to provide us with valuable sales information to assist our buyers and improve merchandise allocation to our stores. Controlling our inventory levels has resulted in more efficient distribution and store operations.
Information Systems. We believe that investments in technology help us to increase sales and control costs. Our inventory management system has allowed us to improve the efficiency of our supply chain, improve merchandise flow, increase inventory turnover and control distribution and store operating costs. Our automatic replenishment system automatically reorders key items, based on actual store level sales and inventory. At the end of 2008, we had over 1,300 basic, everyday items on automatic replenishment.
Point-of-sale data allows us to track sales and inventory by merchandise category at the store level and assists us in planning for future purchases of inventory. We believe that this information allows us to ship the appropriate product to stores at the quantities commensurate with selling patterns. Using this point-of-sale data for planning purchases of inventory has helped us decrease our inventory per square foot in the current year. Our inventory turns also increased 5 basis points in 2008 after a 25 basis point increase in 2007. Inventory turnover has increased in each of the last four years.
Corporate Culture and Values. We believe that honesty and integrity, doing the right things for the right reasons, and treating people fairly and with respect are core values within our corporate culture. We believe that running a business, and certainly a public company, carries with it a responsibility to be above reproach when making operational and financial decisions. Our executive management team visits and shops our stores like every customer, and ideas and individual creativity on the part of our associates are encouraged, particularly from our store managers who know their stores and their customers. We have standards for store displays, merchandise presentation, and store operations. We maintain an open door policy for all associates. Our distribution centers are operated based on objective measures of performance and virtually everyone in our store support center is available to assist associates in the stores and distribution centers.
Our disclosure committee meets at least quarterly and monitors our internal controls over financial reporting and ensures that our public filings contain discussions about the risks our business faces. We believe that we have the controls in place to be able to certify our financial statements. Additionally, we have complied with the updated listing requirements for the Nasdaq Stock Market.
Store Openings and Square Footage Growth. The primary factors contributing to our net sales growth have been new store openings, an active store expansion and remodel program, and selective mergers and acquisitions. In the last five years, net sales increased at a compound annual growth rate of 10.4%. We expect that the majority of our future sales growth will come primarily from new store openings and from our store expansion and relocation program.
The following table shows the total selling square footage of our stores and the selling square footage per new store opened over the last five years. Our growth and productivity statistics are reported based on selling square footage because our management believes the use of selling square footage yields a more accurate measure of store productivity. The selling square footage statistics for 2004 through 2008 are estimates based on the relationship of selling to gross square footage.
We expect to increase our selling square footage in the future by opening new stores in underserved markets and strategically increasing our presence in our existing markets via new store openings and store expansions (expansions include store relocations). In fiscal 2009 and beyond, we plan to predominantly open stores that are approximately 8,000 - 10,000 selling square feet and we believe this size allows us to achieve our objectives in the markets in which we plan to expand. At January 31, 2009, 1,680 of our stores, totaling 61.0% of our selling square footage, were 8,100 selling square feet or larger.
In addition to new store openings, we plan to continue our store expansion program to increase our net sales per store and take advantage of market opportunities. We target stores for expansion based on the current sales per selling square foot and changes in market opportunities. Stores targeted for expansion are generally less than 6,000 selling square feet in size. Store expansions generally increase the existing store size by approximately 4,000 selling square feet.
Since 1995, we have added a total of 609 stores through four mergers and several small acquisitions. Our acquisition strategy has been to target companies that have a similar single-price point concept that has shown success in operations or companies that provide a strategic advantage. We evaluate potential acquisition opportunities in our retail sector as they become available.
On March 25, 2006, we completed our acquisition of 138 Deal$ stores, which included stores that offered an expanded assortment of merchandise including items that sell for more than $1. These stores provide us an opportunity to leverage our Dollar Tree infrastructure in the testing of new merchandise concepts, including higher price points, without disrupting the single-price point model in our Dollar Tree stores.
Since the acquisition, we have opened new Deal$ stores, including some in new markets, and operate 143 Deal$ stores as of January 31, 2009.
From time to time, we also acquire the rights to store leases through bankruptcy proceedings of certain discount retailers. We will take advantage of these opportunities as they arise in the future.
Merchandising and Distribution. Expanding our customer base is important to our growth plans. We plan to continue to stock our new stores with the ever-changing merchandise that our current customers have come to appreciate. Consumable merchandise typically leads to more frequent return trips to our stores resulting in increased sales. The presentation and display of merchandise in our stores are critical to communicating value to our customers and creating a more exciting shopping experience. We believe our approach to visual merchandising results in higher store traffic, higher sales volume and an environment that encourages impulse purchases.
A strong and efficient distribution network is critical to our ability to grow and to maintain a low-cost operating structure. We believe our distribution centers in total are capable of supporting approximately $6.7 billion in annual sales. New distribution sites are strategically located to reduce stem miles, maintain flexibility and improve efficiency in our store service areas.
Our stores receive approximately 90% of their inventory from our distribution centers via contract carriers. The remaining store inventory, primarily perishable consumable items and other vendor-maintained display items, are delivered directly to our stores from vendors. For more information on our distribution center network, see Item 2 “Properties” beginning on page 13 of this Form 10-K.