NEW YORK — Canadian retailer the Jean Coutu Group is negotiating to buy the Eckerd drugstore chain from J.C. Penney.

Michel Coutu, president and chief executive officer of Rhode Island-based Brooks Pharmacy, the company’s U.S. division, said he has been in meetings in New York this week to try to work out a deal. But it is not a sure thing.

“Jean Coutu is one of several interested parties. We are not negotiating with [Coutu] singularly,” said Allen Questrom, chairman and chief executive officer of J.C. Penney Co. on Wednesday. “There is a process going on, where we said would we evaluate the possibility of selling the company, and the process is through our investment banker who is there to determine who is interested, and what they’re willing to pay.”

Penney’s has said it will determine by yearend if it will pursue a sale. Speculation on potential suitors has been been rampant since Penney’s revealed earlier this year that it was looking into the possibility.

Brooks, a 330-store chain, has been hungry for growth. Last year, it acquired 80 New England-area Osco Drug stores for an approximate price of $240 million. And Coutu said this week the firm is interested in Eckerd’s full store count, which is sizable. Eckerd, based in Clearwater, Fla, operates 2,700 stores in 23 states. Brooks currently operates in seven states throughout the Northeast.

The Jean Coutu Group manages some 300 pharmacies throughout Canada in addition to Brooks. For fiscal year 2002, which ended May 31, the company’s net earnings rose 17 percent. For the 12 months, the Canadian division posted retail sales of $1.83 billion, or $2.41 billion Canadian, and the Brooks division had sales of $2.03 billion, or $2.67 billion Canadian. Figures have been converted at current exchange rates. Both groups contributed to the earnings, according to a company statement.

In 2002, Eckerd had sales of $14.6 billion, with comp store gains of 5.2 percent led by pharmacy with a 7.6 percent increase. This year hasn’t been as positive. Monthly comp store sales for October were down 1.7 percent and in November sales slipped 2.7 percent, with pharmacy sales flat and front end down 8.5 percent.

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