By  on February 26, 2008

L.L. Bean is leapfrogging from the Northeast to the Midwest for the first time, with a store opening set for the Chicago area in September.

The 96-year-old purveyor of outdoor gear and apparel wants to be a national chain and also is working to secure a lease in the New York City region. But executives said the expansion is methodical.

"We are very careful selecting markets," Ken Kacere, senior vice president of retail, said Monday. "We really take a look at where our customer base is, and where there are people who enjoy the activities we support. We are certainly moving across the country."

The 30,000-square-foot Chicago-area store will be in the Arboretum of South Barrington, an affluent northwestern suburb. The company has 12 retail stores and 15 outlets in the Northeast, including the 200,000-square-foot complex [including a full-price store and outlet] in Freeport, Maine, where L.L. Bean is based. There are plans to operate 32 full-price stores by 2012.

Privately held L.L. Bean was founded by Leon Leonwood Bean as a one-room operation selling a single product, the Maine Hunting Shoe.

"We are looking to open more stores in the midcentral part of the country" in the near future, Kacere said, without specifying a timetable.

The Chicago unit is part of a new generation of retail units L.L. Bean calls the "outdoor lifestyle store," which includes the brand's "outdoor discovery school."

"They're built around this concept that we call 'learn, try, buy and enjoy,'" Kacere explained. It involves providing learning clinics on sports and recreational activities such as kayaking, fly-fishing, knot tying, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing through in-store demonstrations or lessons at locations outside the store. Some clinics are free, others are $15.

L.L. Bean also helps hook up customers with groups and individuals already involved in outdoor sports, and, of course, outfits them.

"Essentially, there is something going on in our outdoor lifestyle stores all the time," Kacere said.

Other L.L. Bean stores with the lifestyle concept are in Albany, N.Y.; Mansfield, Mass., and South Windsor, Conn.In the Chicago market, "we have a strong and dedicated customer base as well as abundant opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation," said Chris McCormick, president and chief executive officer of L.L. Bean. "We will offer our authentic product selection of active, outdoor sports gear, along with our other popular lines such as kids' and men's and women's casual apparel."

The Chicago store will be built to U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standards. L.L. Bean has six other "green" stores incorporating recycled and reclaimed materials as well as "state-of-the-art" energy-efficient heating, cooling and lighting systems, the company said.

"Our wood fixtures are made from pickle barrels," Kacere said. "We get them from all over the country." The wood flooring comes "from old barns. That means we use no new wood. It means no trees had to come down. We also use a lot of recycled metal."

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