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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Giving America the Boot

He had tried a number of jobs without success but, unlike Dubya, these jobs were undistinguished so failure only hurt himself.  His last job was clerking in his brother's dry goods store.  But the call of the hunt was too much for him.  So were his wet and cold feet.  Leather boots let water in.  Rubber boots made his feet sweat.  He decided to solve the problem.

The Maine Hunting Shoe.

In 1911 Leon Leonwood (L.L.) Bean worked with a cobbler to design a boot with leather uppers and rubber bottoms and came up with the Maine Hunting Shoe, and the cornerstone of a successful business.  He began working out of his brother's shop.  Cleverly, a year later he was able to get a list of non-resident hunters who had Maine hunting licenses.  To these he sent a three-page flyer stating:

"You cannot expect success hunting deer or moose if your feet are 
not properly dressed.  The Maine Hunting Shoe is designed by 
a hunter who has tramped the Maine woods for the last 18 years.  
We guarantee them to give perfect satisfaction in every way."

L.L. was aware of the power of mail order as exemplified by Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward.  One hundred orders came in for his boots.  However, ninety of them came back with the leather tops ripped from the rubber bottoms.  He refunded their money making good on his guarantee.  He solved the problem with triple stitching and the use of better quality materials.

He relied on word-of-mouth and worked hard to build a mailing list.  His initial profits went to advertising. Customer service was an utmost priority and built his reputation.  By 1934 his flyer had become a 52-page catalog.  He began to have in-person visits to his factory in Freeport, Maine, and in 1951 he opened the store 24/7 all year.  There are no locks on the Freeport store.

The Field Coat, introduced in 1924.

While the business began with the Maine Hunting Shoe, other products were soon added:  the Field Coat in 1924; the Chamois Shirt in 1928; and the Boat and Tote® Bag was introduced in 1944 as Bean's Ice Carrier.  Just last year a new sub-brand called the L.L.Bean Signature was launched.  This collection, designed by Alex Carleton, is a modern interpretation of classic items with updated style and a modern fit.

Chamois Cloth Shirt, introduced in 1928.

The original Freeport store resembled an old factory.  The business office was on the 3rd floor which was accessible only from outside stairs.  Mail orders were filled on the 2nd floor.  A mail chute led to the first floor where L.L.'s brother was post master in the street-floor post office.  Visitors could watch moccasins being made, and repairs to hunting boots done under their lifetime guarantee.  The hallway of the staircase functioned as a bulletin board used by hunters to share information.

The flagship store in Freeport, Maine.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The new Freeport facility resembles a campus with different departments in different buildings.  It features a trout pond in the middle of the store, and 3,500 gallon freshwater aquarium replicating a 25-foot streambed.  Aside from the different store buildings, there is also a cafe, a coffee shop, the 16-foot boot sculpture, and Discovery Park, a venue for outdoor concerts and events.  Plans are to develop a 700 acre "adventure center" in Freeport.

Catalogs are sent to over 160 countries.  There are retail stores in Japan and China. These are a big step from their rather timid initial experiences with retail stores.  At first their retail stores were not so successful.  They learned from experience things such as making sure their store had parking lot access when in a mall - it's kind of hard for customers to tote their kayaks through a mall to their vehicle.  By hiring people with storefront knowledge and experience, they were able to make their retail stores successful.

Despite the homey, folksy look of their catalogs and interiors of their stores, not to mention the "ah, shucks" tone of their company website, now virtually all their clothing and the majority of other products are imported, which is disappointing.  The Maine Hunting Shoe, the Boat and Tote® Bag, and a few other items are still manufactured by L.L.Bean.

Even your dog will like L.L.Bean's "Wicked Good Dog Couch".
Image courtesy of Lynn Quire.

L.L. passed away at the age of 94 in 1967.  The company passed on to his grandson, Leon Gorman.  In 2001 Gorman took the position of Chairman, appointing Christopher McCormick CEO - the first non-family member.

It would be the perfect company if they would sell American-made products only, not to mention the jobs that would create.  But one cannot argue with the truth and simplicity of L.L.'s Golden Rule:

"Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers 
like human beings and they will alway come back for more."

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of L.L.Bean.

1 comment:

  1. I guess L.L. gave America the boot by outsourcing--too bad...