PORTLAND (AP) – L.L. Bean is considering the purchase of all or part of rival outfitter Eddie Bauer as the chain goes through bankruptcy reorganization with corporate parent Spiegel Inc.

The purchase of Bauer would double the sales of Freeport-based Bean and provide a huge boost to its efforts to make retail stores a more substantial part of a business that relies heavily on mail order.

Rich Donaldson, a Bean spokesman, said the company informed the New York bankruptcy court handling the Spiegel case that it wants to be kept up to date on developments.

“We have effectively expressed our interest in knowing what assets coming out of those proceedings might become available,” Donaldson said. “We are curious to know about the potential of any of those Bauer assets with Bean’s current growth strategies.”

Bauer, which is based in Redmond, Wash., has more than 500 stores nationwide, a catalog arm that does more than 100 million mailings each year, several Web-based retail sites, a high-profile brand and sales of $1.4 billion in 2002.

Donaldson said Bean is in a position to make a purchase, even though it has been stuck at $1.1 billion in sales for much of the past decade and the company has laid off nearly 500 workers over the past year, including 300 in February.

“The company is in the enviable position of considering new business investments that make sense,” he said, adding that Bean is also “unequivocally” committed to remaining family owned.

A spokeswoman for Spiegel declined comment on the report that Bean might be interested in buying Bauer.

Bean and Bauer have similar product lines, with Bauer emphasizing outdoor and casual clothing and Bean offering a wider selection of hunting, fishing and camping gear.

“There’s a lot of synergy,” said Kevin Silverman, a retail analyst with ABN AMRO in Chicago.

Silverman noted that buying Bauer would give Bean a relatively new distribution center, located centrally in Columbus, Ohio, an expanded mailing list and access to thousands of new customers through Bauer’s chain of retail stores.

It also would help level the playing field with another competitor, Lands’ End, that was bought last year by Sears. That purchase immediately gave Lands’ End – almost exclusively a catalog and online seller at that point – access to hundreds of retail stores coast-to-coast.

If Bean buys the entire Bauer operation, the acquisition would mark the biggest expansion in Bean’s history. It currently has four large flagship stores – in Maine, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey – and 15 factory outlet stores, in addition to its catalogs and Web site. It also operates a few stores in Japan, Canada and Germany.

AP-ES-05-02-03 0217EDT

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