NEW YORK — Benetton’s largest U.S. retail licensee is grabbing up more square footage. According to sources, Iraklis Karabassis, owner of about 70 Benetton stores in the U.S., has bought up a cluster of Benetton units in Manhattan. Karabassis, who is based in Washington, D.C., and Benetton officials could not be reached for comment Friday to learn whether Benetton is more aggressively trying to transfer ownership of its stores to individual entrepreneurs in the U.S. and elsewhere. Sources said Karabassis has bought at least six stores in Manhattan.One source said Karabassis took ownership of the Manhattan stores on July 28, including units on Fifth Avenue and 48th Street, Third Avenue and 42nd Street, on Broadway in SoHo, and on 17th Street in Chelsea. Two Sisley stores were also believed to have been sold. Sisley is a division of The United Colors of Benetton.About two years ago, Benetton launched a global strategy to open "mega" stores, including more that would be company-owned. However, most units are still part of a licensed network of stores operated by about 2,000 private entrepreneurs worldwide, but dictated to by Benetton. The stores are supplied strictly with merchandise designed and manufactured by Benetton and with Benetton-created fixtures and graphics. Benetton collects wholesale sales in return, while stores keep their own sales and profits.Benetton has about 5,000 stores in 120 countries, including over 100 megastores. Another 100 to 200 megastores are seen opening over the next two years. Aside from The United Colors of Benetton and Sisley apparel brands, the group also owns the Playlife, Nordica, Prince, Rollerblade and Killer Loop brands. Recently, Benetton’s casual business has been doing better than its sports equipment brands and there had been speculation that Benetton might be looking to sell its sports brands, which the company denied in June.

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