LOS ANGELES — After months of speculation on how strong Kohl’s presence will be in Southern California, the Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based retailer said Tuesday it plans to open 28 department stores in the region by early next year.

As reported, Kohl’s said last March it would establish a "significant" presence in the Los Angeles and Orange County areas in 2003, but never gave a number of stores.

"By expanding to California, Kohl’s becomes a national retailer," said Larry Montgomery, Kohl’s chief executive, in a statement.

Kohl’s executives remain secretive about where the stores will land. Real estate sources have said all along that Kohl’s had been looking for parcels of land in rural Southern California large enough for new stores. They are all expected to bow on the same day. April 8 has been mentioned as a possible opening date, but Kohl’s executives would not comment, other than to say the stores will open in the first quarter.

While Los Angeles is considered a top choice but reportedly yet to be secured, real estate sources say Kohl’s will open stores in Temecula, Carona and Downey, as well as the Inland Empire — a vast area that reaches from Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario counties to Palm Springs and Palm Desert. The retailer has also been spotted as far west as Ventura, Torrance and Valencia, and as far south as Santa Margarita and Ladera Ranch.

Meanwhile, observers say Kohl’s entry into Southern California will significantly change the retail landscape, possibly resulting in the demise of such competitors as Mervyn’s. In October, Robinsons-May opened an updated concept analysts believe is a direct response to Kohl’s Southern California entry.

"Everybody is getting ready," said Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, who noted that a Sears door in Downey recently added centralized checkouts and shopping carts.

Fast-growing Kohl’s operates 457 stores in 33 states, a reach that, until recently, went no further west than locations in Colorado and Texas.

In 2003, the company plans to openabout 80 new stores nationally. Besides Southern California, 45 to 50 new stores will bow in Phoenix and Las Vegas markets. A distribution center, in San Bernardino, will open in December to support the western expansion.

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