business news in context, analysis with attitude

Monday was essentially a travel day for this road show, as we continue accumulating footage for the Japanese documentary. We drove up to Portland, Maine, with the top down on the Miata, enjoying an absolutely spectacular New England day.

At the end of the afternoon, we visited one of the great American retailing institutions – LL Bean. Freeport, Maine, which is where the company is and always has been based, essentially has grown up around LL Bean. These days, outlet stores for virtually every American retailer line the main street; however, it is the quintessential purveyor of outdoor clothing and equipment that dominates the landscape. The physical plant is impressive, with racks and racks of merchandise, a 20 foot Bean shoe sculpture outside one door, canoes and kayaks hanging from the ceiling.

The LL Bean store in Freeport is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It never closes, which is an interesting statement from a company that has a family-friendly image. Employees we spoke with said that, in fact, Christmas afternoon tends to be a busy day at the store. Local who get gift certificates come in to redeem them, and people who get actual Bean presents come in to make exchanges. The employees don’t seem to mind working holidays, and concede that to make a change now would simply irritate regulars/ “And we’re here for the customers,” one cashier said with a smile.

Beyond this constant availability, LL Bean has far more to offer shoppers who visit its brick-and-mortar store. The store doesn’t carry everything that is in the many catalogs it issues, but it does manage to replicate the cheerful attitude that its telephone operators evince. We found the store filled with happy, helpful employees who checked out product availability on the shelves and the computer, took our name and number and promised to call with additional information, and even promised to ship items that weren’t in stock to our office, and not even charge shipping.

What most impressed us what the effort that the employees there went to in order to establish some sort of connection with the shopper. A small question, an inquiry about previous merchandise acquired, or even just a smile. It works.

In short, the LL Bean brick-and-mortar experience is a superior one, but it has little to do with the brick-and-mortar. It has to do with flesh-and-blood, heart and soul.

It isn’t a foolproof formula, of course. LL Bean’s annual sales are in the $1 billion range, and the company has been cautiously exploring expansion of the brick-and-mortar side of the business. It now has 14 outlet stores, four retail units and a children’s store around the country – fewer than analysts expected it would have when management announced the retail roll-out plan a few years ago. Critics believe that Bean also suffers from a lack of hipness; we can tell you, based on being part of a Bean focus group about a year ago, that it is extremely concerned that every product it makes and sells reflect core values.

Bean is privately held, with no apparent plans to either go public or sell to a larger retailer, which is what its competitor, Lands’ End, did.

So, it is a business in transition. But from a consumer perspective, the retail units are worth visiting, and worth learning from.
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