SVELTER SEARS COULD BE HUNTING FOR RETAIL UNITS

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It's been nearly a year since Sears, Roebuck & Co. shed its real estate arm and investment brokerage. Now the slimmer retail and insurance company has a sound financial position to acquire other retailers.

And it just so happens, in the wake of the blockbuster marriage of R.H. Macy & Co. and Federated Department Stores, there's a nip of retail buyout activity in the autumn air.

Although it pulled back last month, St. Louis-based May Co. made a strong run at Ohio-based Mercantile Stores; North Carolina-based Lowe's Cos. reportedly has been eying Kmart Corp.'s Builders Square subsidiary.

With Sears' ledger again looking like that of a retailer (though the company still owns roughly 80% of Allstate Corp.), is the Chicago-based giant browsing?

Merchandise Group Chairman Arthur Martinez said the company isn't actively pursuing deals, but it will consider propositions that come its way.

"We're not shopping for acquisitions," Mr. Martinez said. "But we would take a look at options provided to us."

Sears halved its $50 billion corporate debt load since spinning off Dean Witter Reynolds, selling Coldwell Banker and divesting other financial concerns late last year.

Sears also has more cash on hand. Cash flow from operating activities totaled $2.08 billion in 1993, which means the company could comfortably service debt on a large acquisition. Its cash balance as of July 2 was $1.17 billion.

"The company has plenty of balance sheet capacity" to buy other companies, said Mr. Martinez.

What would Sears buy? Analysts and consultants differ on what would constitute the perfect fit. But they agree the target company should sell product lines similar to Sears' and should occupy a market niche that would allow Sears to reduce costs by combining its buying operations with those of the acquired company.

Chicago market researcher Leo J. Shapiro said a Sears-Builders Square deal would be a "marriage made in heaven," giving Sears' stellar hard goods business, which accounts for about 65% of merchandise sales, a place to grow.

Former Sears insiders say Sears was close to buying Builders Square nemesis Home Depot several years ago. Now, the Atlanta-based home-improvement-category killer is too big to swallow.

Yet the emphasis under Mr. Martinez's stewardship is growing the apparel business-potentially a highly profitable segment-said Wayne Hood, a Prudential Securities analyst in Atlanta.

And the addition of an apparel retailer or department store operator with strong private-label operations would give Sears what it needs most to challenge Texas-based J.C. Penney Co., Mr. Hood said. "Sears would be looking for synergies and ways to cut administrative costs."

But Mr. Martinez said the only properties that interest him now are several Federated stores in the Northeast that the Cincinnati-based retailer wants to discard in the wake of its merger.

"We are in discussions with Federated management. [The talks are] in the early stages," Mr. Martinez said.

Mr. Veverka is an associate editor for Crain's Chicago Business.

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