Commentary

L.L. Bean Putting Boots On The Ground, Expanding To 'At Least 100' Stores

L.L. Bean, which has archived more about direct sales to consumers through its catalog, website and retail stores than many an Internet startup has ever learned, says it will quadruple its brick-and-mortar outlets to “at least 100” by 2020 starting with four more undisclosed locations this year, reports the AP’s David Sharp.

“The plan is part of an ‘omnichannel’ retail strategy, aiming for customers to have various shopping options, whether online, by catalog and phone, or in-store,” Bean spokesperson Mac McKeever tells Darren Fishell of the Bangor Daily News.

“‘Folks who may only know us from the catalogs and Internet get to see us in 3-D,’ McKeever said, adding store locations also could serve as pick-up points for shoppers and that each store would offer excursions through L.L. Bean’s Outdoor Discovery schools.”

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Bean’s flagship HQ in Freeport, Maine, has long been a destination for wayfaring outdoorsmen, Maine vacationers and inveterate shoppers, attracting more than 3 million visitors last year. It is open 365/24. In recent decades, however, Bean has expanded to 26 retail locations and 10 outlet stores — primarily in malls in the Northeast but as far west as Colorado, including new locations in Burlington, Vt., Minnesota’s Mall of America and Denver in 2014.

“As we get farther away from New England, people don’t have the same understanding of what our brand is,” Ken Kacere, Bean’s SVP of retail, tells the Boston Globe’s Taryn Luna. “With more stores we can hopefully get a new generation of people in front of the brand.”

Spokesperson Carolyn Beem “said the company experimented with store sizes and locations in the first few years of its retail expansion and has decided that it does best in ‘lifestyle malls’ — outdoor malls in which several large retailers cluster around smaller stores, such as the Maine Crossing Mall off Running Hill Road in South Portland — so it’s likely that’s the sort of retail format where most new stores will go,” reports Edward D. Murphy in the Portland Press Herald.

The company also announced “a positive close to its 2014 fiscal year, bucking retail industry trends that showed disappointing results for many retailers” — $161 billion in revenue, a 3% increase over 2013 — and said it would issue 5% performance bonuses to its 5,300 employees. Website sales were up 7% in that period, according to a news release. 

“Demand for the iconic Bean Boots, manufactured in Maine, continued to be strong, with approximately 450,000 pairs produced in 2014,” the release stated. But apparently that was hardly enough for the brutal winter — one would hope — past.

“Shh … can you hear that? If you listen very, very closely, it’s the grumbling of lumbersexuals and other hipsters across the land, groaning over the fact that their L.L. Bean duck boots are hopelessly backordered,” writes Mary Beth Quirk in her lede for Consumerist. “The rubber-bottomed, leather-topped boots that first debuted as the ‘Maine hunting shoe’ in 1912 has a waiting list of 100,000” and “some fans took to eBay, willing to pay doubled prices just to get a pair,” as Quirk re-reports Kaura Northrup’s December piece for Consumerist.

“The boot business and the fact that it is on back order makes things even better,” Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD Group, tells the Boston Globe’s Luna. “Now people are coveting something that you can’t get easily, and it drives an even greater desire for the product. It brings more attention, and L.L. Bean can tell a really good story to the consumer.”

“It’s fantastic,” Rajiv Lal, a senior professor of retailing at Harvard Business School, adds about the expansion. “Given the data they have, they know exactly what size the stores should be and they know exactly what sells and what doesn’t.”

Bean also knows precisely how to market the wholesome, pristine image embodied by the Yankee ethic. It was recently ranked No. 7 in the country for the highest corporate reputation overall among the top 100 most visible companies by the annual Harris Poll Reputation Quotient study. It was the top-finishing retailer.  

“Thanks to the integrity of its product line, consistently strong brand association, and the ability to change with customers' needs, L. L. Bean embodies the best qualities long associated with traditional American living: rugged individualism, stubborn determination, and simple ingenuity,” according to the blurb to the 2006 book, L.L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon by Leon Gorman, the grandson of founder Leon Leonwood (L.L.) Bean.

Add good old territorial expansionism to that list.

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