NEW YORK — Another retail play might be in the works, with direct merchant L.L. Bean looking to buy all or parts of Eddie Bauer, and analysts say it would be a good fit for both companies.
A Bean acquisition of Bauer’s 469-unit chain — it currently has 529 units, but is in the process of closing 60 — would allow it to grab a chunk of store space, and convert some of the Bauer units into Bean stores. Such a move would allow Bean, which is mostly a catalog firm with a Web presence and some outlet stores, to immediately compete more effectively with rival Lands’ End, according to retail consultant Walter Loeb of Loeb Associates.
Lands’ End was in a similar position of having the same distribution channels before it was purchased by Sears, Roebuck & Co. last year. Now the retailer is in the process of rolling out Lands’ End product to its Sears stores.
Richard Hastings, credit economist for Bernard Sands, said that with Spiegel Inc., parent of Bauer, now in Chapter 11, it might be the right time to consider purchasing all or part of Bauer’s assets. Sometimes a bankruptcy allows firms to buy the assets of their competitors at discounted prices.
As reported, firms involved in asset valuations have said that Spiegel’s best asset is its Bauer unit. Other sources familiar with the Spiegel bankruptcy said last month that the Bauer unit is on the auction block. Spiegel officials declined comment, but have maintained in the past that it is considering all options as it works on restructuring its business.
An L.L. Bean spokesman told WWD Friday that his firm notified the U.S. Trustee in the Spiegel bankruptcy case last week of its interest in being informed about developments concerning Bauer’s assets.
"Our interest at this point is very preliminary, primarily because it is unclear as to whether Bauer will emerge from these proceedings intact, will be under new ownership or whether it will be sold off," the spokesman said.
He explained that the competitive nature of Bauer’s business and potential synergies — sourcing, distribution and customer lists — led the company to take a "keen interest" in the disposition of the Bauer assets and how some of those assets "might enhance L.L. Bean’s current growth strategies."According to the spokesman, one area of focus for Bean management is retail expansion. The firm currently operates 19 stores, including 15 factory outlets.
"We’ve looked at retail expansion as a component of our multichannel platform for growth [and] it does present a new venue for bringing the brand to a new audience," he said.
He declined comment regarding the competitive need for going head-to-head with Lands’ End’s retail presence through Sears, but noted, "We’ve followed the Lands’ End-Sears developments with keen interest."
According to Hastings, "L.L. Bean’s purchase of Bauer’s assets and its retail sites would improve Bean’s multichannel strategy significantly. Bean can’t remain exclusively a catalog firm who happens to have a Web presence. It needs more full-price stores in competitive locations to be a player."
Also keeping close tabs on Bauer are some private investment firms, according to financial sources. While those potential investors have already taken a "look" at Bauer, they’ve also chosen to wait on the sidelines because of their expectation that Bauer would close more stores. More store closures on top of the 60 units announced last week, of course, would decrease the value of Bauer’s asset base from when they first looked at the chain last month.
Shares of Spiegel closed on Friday at 8 cents, up 1 cent, in trading on the Pink Sheets.
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