FREEPORT – Holiday sales at L.L. Bean rose 17 percent over 2004 figures, giving the company a strong showing compared to the 3 to 4 percent sales increase retailers reported nationwide.

The Freeport-based outdoor sporting goods and clothing company attributed the sharp rise to its offer to ship products for free during the holiday season and increased advertising spending, particularly on television and the Internet.

Internet sales were especially strong, growing by 48 percent over the 2004 holiday season, according to spokesman Rich Donaldson. For the first time ever, L.L. Bean’s sales over the Internet exceeded catalog sales placed by telephone or mail.

“We’re very grateful for the results we’ve experienced,” Donaldson said. “The trick will be to see how we can best that next year.”

L.L. Bean, which has about 3,900 full-time workers, is among the largest private employers in Maine and serves as a bellwether for the shopping climate in the state. It has a flagship store in Freeport and four other retail outlets in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland.

Retailers nationwide reported that December sales figures, while respectable overall, were disappointing for some and good for others.

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, chain store sales last month rose 3.2 percent over 2004. The council had projected a 3 percent to 3.5 percent increase.

Strong performances were reported by Target, Costco, Nordstrom and Abercrombie & Fitch. Wal-Mart, Sears and Gap stores were among the stragglers.

L.L. Bean, a privately held company that had sales of about $1.4 billion in 2004, does not report monthly sales figures or profits.

Although the company is projecting that 2005 revenues will beat 2004 revenues by 5 or 6 percent, profits probably won’t be as great because of additional expenses last year on marketing, free shipping and other items, Donaldson said.

“’05 is shaping up to be a good year profit-wise, but not as good as 04,” he said.

The biggest surprise was the jump in people shifting to the Internet to place their orders, Donaldson said.

“We expected that shift to occur in 2006 over time, but it just came in unbelievably strong in December,” he said.

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