When I heard the news last week that retailer L.L. Bean was abandoning its legendary lifetime return policy, I smacked my palm to my forehead. It’s not the decision itself that shocks me: Recent years have seen plenty of retailers back away from venerable promises. It’s because I’d been driving around for weeks with a pair of busted snowshoes in my trunk.
Of course, the Freeport, Maine-based retailer couldn’t have given customers a heads-up. In a letter to customers, chairman Shawn Gorman says it made the decision based on a “small but growing number” of bad apples, fraudulently claiming refunds for products that were simply worn out, or even purchased at yard sales. In other words, it’s because people can be schmucks. No argument here.
But it’s also true that retailers can sell undifferentiated crap, nipping away at customer perceptions of quality, expertise and experience. It’s why one store seems just like another at the mall. And L.L. Bean, a privately held company going through the same financial struggles as other beat-up retailers, is no exception.
It’s not that I don’t think Bean is exceptional. I do. The signature boot, made locally, is indestructible. When I took up turkey hunting a decade ago, I bought a shotgun and my camouflage gear here, and I’m still happy. I took a skeet-shooting lesson from a Bean pro who had me convinced (at least for an hour) that I was the next Annie Oakley. My stand-up paddle-boarding class resulted in another proud purchase. Thanks to Bean’s skillful fitters, every time I climb a mountain, my feet thank me. My shoulders adore my backpack. My family has loved the return policy, and maybe even abused it: Did that tent leak because it was shoddy? Or was it handled too roughly by my ornery teenagers?
I head to the flagship campus, enter by the giant boot, take a left at the giant salmon tank to wait my turn in customer service, hoping the broken plastic binding can be fixed. (Repair also once figured prominently into this brand’s DNA. And while people willing to navigate the arcane process can still get their Bean boots resoled, other brands, such as Patagonia, are overtaking Bean on the ‘repair and reuse’ mantra that once belonged to this thrifty New England icon.)
“Nope,” I was told brusquely. “No repair possible.”
“Okay,” I ask, “how about donating them to a community group for repair?” (It’s not a crazy question. Bean supplies many local schools, including the one my kids attended, with snowshoes for phys ed.) She shakes her vehemently, already looking behind me to the next customer. “If you’d like, I can recycle them for you,” she says.
I hand them over, and suspect this woman knows as well as I do how often recycling really means landfill. But okay.
I walk past the trout pond, wander through backpacks and sleeping bags until I face the wall of snowshoes, and my no-choice choice: The only brand here is L.L. Bean, in a model nearly identical to the one I just recycled. Will it break again? Of course. It’s not well made. I know it’s not well made. My only options are to a) leave the store, do my homework and buy a highly reviewed non-Bean snowshoe online or b) cave in to my immediate-gratification consumerism, so I can go snowshoeing this afternoon. I grab a green pair, disgusted with myself.
On the way to the register, I pause in women’s shoes, eyeing a large display of bedroom slippers. I notice the two women next to me, also looking at slippers, are actually wearing slippers. Confused, I whisper to the saleswoman: “These are slippers, right? They’re not meant to be worn outdoors?”
She thanks me for asking. “Yes,” she whispers back. “They’re for indoors. I don’t know what people are thinking when they wear them outside.” (These same women are also wearing pajama bottoms, so there’s that.)
But it strikes me that this little discrepancy is exactly the heartbreak of L.L. Bean’s decision. It is ceding the brand and what it once stood for to people like this—people who wear bedroom slippers outdoors on a slushy Saturday in February, and don’t know the difference. These are people who come here and buy mountains of T-shirts and pullovers and pajama pants as unremarkable as anything they might find at Kohl’s, J.C. Penney or Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Maybe L.L. Bean thinks it’s struggling because people are dishonest. But maybe the problem is, at least in this case, it sells crap. Younger, more avid outdoor enthusiasts are clamoring for brands with real performance, not bygone pedigrees. They’re rejecting the increasingly generalist L.L. Bean brand for expert gear. They want MSR snowshoes, Arc'teryx jackets and Marmot sleeping bags. They want brands that stand for what they believe in. If they are environmentalists, they want brands like Patagonia, which is battling for public lands, instead of Bean’s bland use of the word “outdoors.” If they’re high-performance sportspeople, they’re flocking to niche brands like Huk fishing gear and Kuiu hunting products.
Buying at L.L. Bean brand was always a safe bet, because of the guarantee. Not anymore.
As I wait in line and sheepishly pay for my new snowshoes and fleece-lined slippers, all I can think of is Joseph de Maistre. Yes, L.L. Bean, people can be chiselers. But maybe retailers get the kind of customers they deserve.