L.L. Bean, Inc.

views updated May 29 2018

L.L. Bean, Inc.

Casco Street
Freeport, Maine 04033
Telephone: (207) 865-4761
Toll Free: (800) 341-4341
Fax: (207) 552-6821
Web site: http://www.llbean.com

Private Company
Employees: 4,000
Sales: $1.07 billion (1999)
NAIC: 454110 Electronic Shopping and Mail-Order
Houses; 451110 Sporting Goods Stores; 448140 Family Clothing Stores

L.L. Bean, Inc. is a leading U.S. catalog company and the largest catalog supplier of outdoor gear in the world. The L.L. Bean catalogs, a tradition since the companys founding, are the engine that drives company sales; in 1999 the company took in $854 million from catalog sales alone. The 1999 catalogs, 70 in all, offered approximately 16,000 different items, most tied to the pursuit of outdoor, active lifestyles. For the solitary fisherman or the busy baby boomer, the name L.L. Bean stands for quality, value, and enduring styleso much so that each year more than three million visitors make pilgrimages to the companys original retail store, in Freeport, Maine, to soak up the Bean ambiance and the Bean bargains. Retail sales for 1999 (including those for the L.L. Kids Store, adjacent to the flagship store; a second L.L. Bean Store in McLean, Virginia; ten factory outlet stores; and more than 20 independently owned retail stores in Japan) reached $206 million. The llbean.com e-commerce web site has been operational since 1996. L.L. Bean also enjoys a high reputation, among its corporate peers as well as its customers, for order fulfillment.

Early 20th-century Origins: The Maine Hunting Shoe

The founder of the company was a 40-year-old Maine out-doorsman named Leon Leonwood Bean. Orphaned at age 12, Bean began to develop his entrepreneurial skills by doing odd jobs and by selling soap door-to-door. He also earned money by trapping. Although he was a natural salesman, according to Robert B. Pile in Top Entrepreneurs and Their Businesses, he was never really satisfied in one job and drifted about from place to place. Finally, Bean went to work for his older brother, Otho, in a Freeport dry goods store. There Bean sold overalls to manual laborers and earned $12 a week. His true love, however, was hunting and fishing in the Maine woods and streams, a love that would eventually lead to the development of one of the most popular and enduring products in American retailing.

Like most outdoorsmen in the early 1900s, Bean frequently suffered the problem of hiking with waterlogged boots. In 1912 he decided to add leather tops to a pair of ordinary rubber boots. He sought the services of a local shoemaker, and, after a few pairs of the boots had been sewn together, he penned a circular entitled The Maine Hunting Shoe. A model of early direct-mail advertising, the circular began: Outside of your gun, nothing is so important to your outfit as your foot-wear. You cannot expect success hunting deer or moose if your feet are not properly dressed. Bean mailed the letter to sportsmen from outside Maine who had purchased Maine hunting licenses and touted his original shoe as light as a moccasin, with the protection of a heavy hunting boot. He priced his product at $3.50 per pair and, to further entice his fellow hunters, offered a money-back guarantee.

Beans marketing was flawless; however, his product was not. Of the 100 pairs of his Maine Hunting Shoes that were ordered and sent, 90 were returned because the tops had separated from the bottoms. Rather than give up his fledgling enterprise, though, Bean honored his guarantee and then borrowed $400 to redesign and perfect his boots (Bean also perfected his guarantee, making it unconditional and, in fact, the essence of Beans customer service culture through the present day). His determination to satisfy himself and his customers paid off after he traveled to Boston to meet with representatives of the U.S. Rubber Company, who were able to fulfill his original design intentions. Bean redoubled his boot-making efforts and his commitment to the mail-order business, fortuitously in the same year that the U.S. Post Office began its parcel post service.

Beans revamped footwear quickly became successful, and he soon expanded his marketing push into other states. A Fortune Hall of Fame article records that when another of Beans brothers, Guy, became the town postmaster, Bean established his factory directly over the post office and facilitated the mailing process with a system of chutes and elevators. He never lost his touch. Knowing that hunters from out of state often drove through Freeport in the middle of the night on their way to some hunting camp in the far wilds, Bean opened for business 24 hours a day. Night customers found a doorbell and a sign that read: Push once a minute until clerk appears.

1920s Through 1950s: Adding Retail Store, Expanding Product Line

Beans name spread during the 1920s, due to word-of-mouth as well as print advertising and the founders continuing innovations. In 1920 Bean opened a showroom store adjacent to his workshop, to accomodate the demands of visitors. In 1922 Bean reengineered the Maine Hunting Shoe by adding a split backstay to help eliminate chafing. Within two years, sales rose to $135,000 annually. In 1923 the company received welcome publicity when its boots were used to outfit the Macmillan Arctic Expedition. Two years later, the first full-sized catalog was mailed, featuring nonshoe apparel and sporting gear for the first time.

The catalog expanded again in 1927, adding fishing and camping equipment to the Bean line. Typical of the ad copy was the inducement: It is no longer necessary for you to experiment with hundreds of flies to determine the few that will catch fish. We have done that experimenting for you. For years, in fact, Bean insisted on personally testing all of the products the company planned to sell. Perhaps this is why the Maine Hunting Shoe, as innovative as it was, proved to be simply the first in a string of classic Bean products, such as the Maine Guide Shirt, the Chamois Cloth Shirt, Bean Moccasins, the Zipper Duffle Bag, and Bean Cork Decoys. (The company also included highquality non-Bean products, beginning with the Hudson Bay Point Blanket in 1927.)

During the Great Depression era, the mail-order house managed not only to survive but to thrive, passing the million-dollar mark in sales in 1937. According to Pile, Bean invested nearly every dollar he made back into the business, with his eye on building it for the long term. The secret to L.L. Beans success during these growth years was a threefold emphasis on quality products, fair pricing, and creating a timeless appeal to the Bean catalogs, which always featured paintings of outdoor Maine scenes and stories that underscored the strong link between Bean products and an outdoor lifestyle. In addition, Leon Leon-wood instituted a postage-paid policy, further strengthening the companys reputation for catering to the customer. By the post-World War II era, both Beans, the man and the company, had become living legends. Moreover, the list of Bean customers was fast becoming a collection of legends itself, with Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Jack Dempsey, John Wayne, and Ted Williams alternately figuring prominently.

In 1951 Bean, still at the helm as he approached 80, announced that the Freeport retail store would begin operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Another important innovation during this decade was the introduction in 1954 of a womens department. Yet despite the now famous Bean name, as the company entered the 1960s its sales volume was not as high as might have been expected. Pile asserts that dark clouds loomed on the horizon as [Bean] became older. No longer did sales increase 25 percent or more each year; dollar volume actually began to flatten. Merchandise in the catalog and in the store was no longer up-to-the-minute and, even worse, orders were being slowly filled by part-time people who had little interest in doing the best possible job. The downhill course the company appeared to be on was steepened by the inception of other sports specialty marketers. This course was altered, however, following Beans death in 1967 when ownership of the company fell to the Bean heirs. Only one was interested in management: Leon A. Gorman, grandson of the founder.

Late 1960s Through Early 1990s: Modernization and Substantial Growth

Gorman was first hired by the company in 1960. In 1967 he became president of a languishing business, with $3.5 million in annual sales and $65,000 in profits. Strong leadership and redirection were required and Gorman filled the need. His first decisions included expanding the advertising budget and demographic target group and making prices more competitive. He refrained from seeking growth through more retail outlets for fear of jeopardizing the catalog business. During his first full year as president, sales rose to nearly $5 million. The company had gotten back on track just in time to enjoy a huge recreation boom that was spreading across the country. By 1975 sales had reached $30 million and the company was employing more than 400 people. During the 1970s, the computerization of many business segments and the relocation of manufacturing to a new building further speeded the companys growth. In 1974 the company built near Freeport a 110,000-square-foot distribution center, which was expanded to 310,000 square feet in 1979.

Several trends contributed to Beans substantial growth in the 1980s. Among them was the accidental, or perhaps inevitable, affiliation of the Bean label with prep culture and clothing. According to Milton Moskowitz, Lisa Birnbachs Official Preppy Handbook, tongue-in-cheek or not in its declaration of the Bean store as nothing less than prep mecca, helped fuel a 42 percent rise in 1981 sales. A new health and fitness boom contributed to Beans growth, as well as a surge in mail-order shopping. First-time Bean customers, nearly 70 percent of whom were women, increased rapidly during the 1980s. The company bolstered its retail space late in the decade, expanding the Freeport store by 40,000 square feet in 1989 and opening the first factory store in North Conway, New Hampshire, in 1988.

Company Perspectives:

The Golden Rule: Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they will always come back for more.

Leon Leonwood Bean, company founder

As the 1990s approached, however, the country experienced a serious recession; sales slowed, returns rose, and a 30 percent postal increase loomed on the horizon. For a time, Bean suffered along with the other major catalog marketers and was forced to lay off ten percent of its hourly and salaried workforce over a two-year period. In a 1992 Forbes article, Phyllis Ber-man placed the problem in a more serious context: What went wrong? To some extent L.L. Bean is the victim of success. A whole generation is already outfitted with L.L. Bean leisurewear and camping equipment. Its durable, high quality clothing lines have spawned many imitators. Meanwhile, similar items turn up in discount stores. Bean carried relatively few styles and introduced new products slowly. But todays trend-conscious and jaded consumers want variety and novelty.

Berman, who continued by questioning Gormans management decisions, may have been premature in her analysis; by the end of 1992, the companys 80th anniversary, sales had risen by 18 percent to $743 million. The same year, L.L. Bean opened its first store in Japan, a ripe market that also contributed high year-end catalog revenues. A second Japanese store was added in July 1993; both were jointly owned by Seiyu and the Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. By 1997 there were 11 L.L. Bean Japan stores. Meanwhile, in the fall of 1993, L.L. Bean launched its first line of childrens clothing.

Mid-1990s and Beyond: Countering Stagnant Sales with Numerous Initiatives

Sales continued to grow smartly through the 1995 fiscal year, reaching $976 million, although that figure was three percent below the companys target. In fact, for the remainder of the decade, revenues were essentially flat, increasing only to $1.08 billion in 1996 (the first time the billion dollar mark had been breached) and standing at $1.07 billion by 1999. Once again, L.L. Bean faced criticism for not changing with the times, both fashion-wise and otherwise. Particularly for women, the companys clothes were seen as too traditional and not fashionable enough. The companys venerable catalogs were being lost amid the myriad catalogs now being mailed out to every American. In addition, the number of retailers offering casual outdoor clothing was on the rise, including such names as American Eagle Outfitters, the Gap, and REI. On top of all that, international sales were hurt by the sluggish Japanese economy and by the late 1990s Asian financial crisis.

L.L. Bean responded aggressively to its latest challenge with a number of late 1990s and early 2000s initiatives. The company joined the e-commerce bandwagon in 1996 with the launching of online ordering via the llbean.com web site. That same year, a new state-of-the-art order fulfillment center was opened in Freeport, boasting 650,000 square feet of space and the capacity to process 27 million items per year. With the new line of childrens clothing proving to be a great success, L.L. Bean opened an L.L. Kids store adjacent to the flagship retail store in Freeport, in 1997. This 17,000-square-foot store featured a number of special attractions, including a two-story waterfall, a trout pond, a hiking trail, and an electronic rock climbing wall. On the womens clothing front, L.L. Bean launched a new brand and a new catalog called Freeport Studio in 1999. The companys first affiliated brand, Freeport Studio featured more contemporary and fashion-forward casual clothes for baby boomer women. Finally, in 2000 L.L. Bean began what a number of industry analysts considered a long overdue expansion of its full-price retail stores. In July of that year, a 76,000-square-foot L.L. Bean store opened in McLean, Virginia, in a fancy suburban Washington mall.

This beginning of a potentially nationwide retail expansion was aimed at increasing overall sales as well as lessening the companys dependence on catalog sales, which comprised 85 percent of the total. Initial sales for the Freeport Studio venture were somewhat disappointing but perhaps not surprising given the extremely competitive nature of the womens clothing sector. It was nevertheless clear that L.L. Bean was once again attempting to update its image and its sales strategy through dramatic undertakings at the turn of the millennium, and it would take some time to determine whether the company could return to the strong growth of the 1980s and the mid-1990s.

Principal Competitors

American Eagle Outfitters, Inc.; Bass Pro Shops, Inc.; Cabelas Inc.; Coldwater Creek Inc.; The Coleman Company, Inc.; Columbia Sportswear Company; The Gap, Inc.; Gart Sports Company; Johnson Outdoors Inc.; Lands End, Inc.; The North Face, Inc.; The Orvis Company Inc.; Recreational Equipment, Inc.; Speigel, Inc.; The Sports Authority, Inc.; The Sportsmans Guide, Inc.; The Timberland Company; Venator Group, Inc.; Wolverine World Wide, Inc.

Key Dates:

Leon Leonwood Bean begins selling the Maine Hunting Shoe through direct mail.
First full-sized catalog is mailed out, featuring nonshoe apparel and sporting gear.
Fishing and camping equipment are added to the catalog.
Annual sales exceed $1 million for the first time.
A womens department opens at the Freeport retail store.
Bean dies; Leon A. Gorman, grandson of the founder, takes over as president.
First factory store opens in North Conway, New Hampshire.
First international store opens in Tokyo, Japan.
L.L. Bean offers its first line of childrens clothing.
Annual sales exceed $1 billion for the first time.
L.L. Kids store opens, adjacent to the Freeport flagship store.
The company launches its first affiliated brand, Freeport Studio.
Second full-price L.L. Bean store opens in McLean, Virginia.

Further Reading

Alpert, Mark, Yuppies Want More Than Most Catalogues Offer, Fortune, October 22, 1990, p. 12.

Bean, L.L., My Story: The Autobiography of a Down-East Merchant, Freeport, Me.: 1962, 104 p.

Bean Sticks to Its Backyard, Economist, August 4, 1990, p. 57.

Berman, Phyllis, Trouble in Bean Land, Forbes, July 6, 1992, pp. 42-44.

Bonnin, Julie, In L.L. Bean Store, the Catalog Fantasy Lives, Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 13, 1993, p. 1E.

Brown, Tom, Worried About Burnout? Try Fly Fishing, Industry Week, January 17, 1994, p. 29.

Cyr, Diane, Lean Times for Bean, Catalog Age, March 1998, pp. 1, 24.

For Your Information, Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 23, 1993, p. 8D.

Gorman, Leon A., L.L. Bean, Inc.: Outdoor Specialties by Mail from Maine, New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1981, 23 p.

Hamilton, Martha M., L.L. Bean Gets a Bigger Tent, Washington Post, July 29, 2000, p. El.

Leon A. Gorman, Chain Store Age Executive, December 1992, p. 57.

Llosa, Patty de, The National Business Hall of Fame (Leon Leonwood Bean), Fortune, April 5, 1993, pp. 112, 114.

Montgomery, M.R., In Search of L.L. Bean, Boston: Little, Brown, 1984, 242 p.

Moskowitz, Milton, et al, L.L. Bean, in Everybodys Business: A Field Guide to the 400 Leading Companies in America, New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Murphy, Edward D., Bean Expansion Banks on Kids, Portland Press Herald, July 27, 1997, p. 1F.

, L.L. Bean Agrees to $750,000 in Fines, Portland Press Herald, August 31, 2000, p. 1A.

, L.L. Bean Going National with Retail Stores, Portland Press Herald, May 22, 1999, p. 1A.

, L.L. Bean Pulling Out of Sales Slump, Portland Press Herald, December 16, 1999, p. 1A.

, A New Style for Beans, Portland Press Herald, June 28, 1998, p. 1A.

Pile, Robert B., L.L. Bean: The Outdoorsman Who Hated Wet Feet, in Top Entrepreneurs and Their Businesses, Minneapolis: Oliver Press, 1993, pp. 29-43.

Port, Otis, and Geoffrey Smith, Beg, Borrowand Benchmark, Business Week, November 30, 1992, pp. 74-75.

Rosenfield, James R., In the Mail: L.L. Bean, Direct Marketing, February 1992, pp. 16-17.

Sly, Yolanda, Beans Looks to Broaden Market: Catalog Giant Opens D.C. Area Mall Store, Bangor Daily News, July 28, 2000.

Sterngold, James, Young Japanese Like Rugged American Look of L.L. Bean, Minneapolis Star Tribune (New York Times), March 4, 1993, p. 6E.

Symonds, William C, Paddling Harder at L.L. Bean, Business Week, December 7, 1998, p. 72.

Tedeschi, Mark, LL.Business, Sporting Goods Business, August 7, 1997, p. 51.

Tucker, Frances Gaither, Seymour M. Zivan, and Robert C. Camp, How to Measure Yourself Against the Best, Harvard Business Review, January/February 1987, pp. 8-10.

Vannah, Thomas M., A Most Bucolic Business, New England Business, May 1990, pp. 64, 63.

Jay P. Pederson

updated by David E. Salamie

L.L. Bean, Inc.

views updated May 23 2018

L.L. Bean, Inc.

15 Casco Street
Freeport, ME 04033
(800) 221-4221

LL. Bean, Inc., an award-winning American mail-order and clothing retailer, was founded over ninety years ago as a sportsmen's outfitter, selling waterproof boots for hunters. Over the years the company expanded into over three hundred product categories for men, women, children, pets, and the homeall with an ironclad guarantee. As the world's leading mail-order business, L.L. Bean's label stands not only for high quality, durable products, but for the satisfaction of each and every one of its customers.

A Love of the Outdoors

Leon Leonwood Bean (known as "L. L.") was born and raised in Maine. After his parents died, he lived with relatives in different parts of the state until he ventured out on his own. Although his education only went as far as the eighth grade, he later took business courses at local colleges and used this knowledge to earn a living. A lifelong lover of the outdoors, Bean often relied on his hunting and fishing skills to provide food. He married in 1898, fathered three children, and over the next decade or so struggled to support his family.

As a hunter, Bean traveled in the woods in all kinds of weather and tired of always having wet, cold feet. In 1911, he decided to do something about it. He designed a sturdy boot and took the to a local shoemaker. Leather was used for the top and side parts of the boot and a thick rubber-soled bottom was added to keep feet dry and warm. The boot was called the "Maine Hunting Shoe." Pleased with the design's initial success, Bean formed a company in 1912, using his own name, to sell the boots to other hunters and fishermen in the area. Using mailing lists from the state hunting board, he mailed three-page flyers to men who had applied for Maine hunting licenses. He soon received several orders, and the L.L. Bean mail-order company was in business.

Within months, the new company faced its first crisis. Customers complained that their shoes fell apart and water leaked in. Rather than ignore the problems, Bean offered his customers a full refund. He then reworked the boots with help from a Boston rubber company and contacted his original buyers, telling them about the improved boot. Bean's insistence that he must provide clients with only the highest quality proved invaluable to the small company. It was the beginning of L.L. Bean's world famous promise: satisfaction was absolutely guaranteed, no matter what, or all money was refunded.

L.L. Bean at a Glance

  • Employees: 4,700 (increases during winter months to more than 9,000)
  • CEO: Chris McCormick
  • Subsidiaries: L.L. Bean stores; L.L. Bean outlets; L.L. Kids Major Competitors: American Eagle Outfitters; Bass Pro Shops; Coldwater Creek; Eddie Bauer, Inc.; j. Crew; Lands' End
  • Notable Products: Bean Boot (formerly Maine Hunting Shoe); Bean's Classic Porch Rocker; Boat & Tote Bags; Burrito Bag (sleeping bag); Maine Cedar Outdoor Furniture; Photo Essentials apparel line (for photographers); Water Hogs (outdoor/indoor mats)

Over the next several years, business grew steadily and a variety of recreational clothes and footwear was introduced. With the increase in sales, Bean was able to expand his one-room operation to open a manufacturing plant and office in downtown Freeport, Maine, in 1917. He then applied for both United States and Canadian patents on the hunting boot, to protect his design from imitators.

Location, Location, Location

A key factor to L.L. Bean's early success was the company's location. Perched atop Freeport's post office, Bean could pack up his shipments and walk downstairs to mail them. With the introduction of the parcel post rate in 1912, small packages could be shipped anywhere in the United States quite cheaply. An added plus was that Bean's brother was Freeport's postmaster.


Maine Hunting Shoe is developed by Leon Leonwood Bean.
L.L. Bean is formed in Freeport, Maine.
Manufacturing plant and office opens on Main Street in Freeport.
Main Street store opens.
Employees number twenty-four; sales top $1 30,000.
Sales reach $1 million.
Company designs and sells boots to the military during World War II.
Employees total over one hundred; Main Street store now open twenty-four hours a day.
Bean's grandson, Leon Gorman, joins the family business.
Founder Leon L. Bean dies and Leon Gorman becomes CEO.
L.L. Bean enters partnership with Japanese companies.
L.L. Kids is introduced.
Company receives 150,000 orders per day; sales hit $4.5 million.
On-line shopping service is launched.
Sales climb to over $1 billion.
Second L.L. Bean store opens in Maclean, Virginia.
Third store opens in Columbia, Maryland; Chris McCormick becomes CEO.

By the 1920s, L.L. Bean was earning a reputation among sportsmen as the best outfitter for camping, hiking, hunting, and fishing. In addition to a wide range of sturdy apparel, the company also began selling equipment, including canoes, tents, and fishing rods. The items were sold through the L.L. bean catalog or in the company store, which opened on Main Street in 1920. Bean's little mail-order company was a hit in Freeport and beyond, and the firm employed two dozen full-time workers by 1924.

L.L. Bean continued to grow and expand in the 1930s, with Bean writing and producing the company's well-known scrapbook-styled catalog. Featuring descriptive paragraphs written in Bean's folksy tone, his genuine love for the outdoors and L.L. Bean products came through on every page. The cover of the catalog always included an outdoor scene, painted by local and later famous artists who wanted to be a part of the L.L. Bean legend. By 1937, sales had reached a phenomenal $1 million.

World War 11 and Beyond

With the United States embroiled in World War II (1939-45), L.L. Bean contributed to the war effort by designing and manufacturing boots for the country's servicemen overseas. Different boot models, all based on the company's original waterproof Maine Hunting Shoe, were shipped to military posts. After the victorious end of the war in 1945, America was a happy, prosperous place, with growing families spending more than ever on recreational goods.

By the beginning of the 1950s, the L.L. Bean store on Main Street was open twenty-four hours a day and the company employed one hundred people to service customers whenever they might need a fishing lure, waterproof boot, or hunting license. These patrons, mostly men but also a growing number of women, helped the company's sales climb to $2 million in 1951. To address the increasing number of its women fans, L.L. Bean created a department just for them in 1954.

The 1960s ushered in a new age for L.L. Bean when grandson Leon Gorman joined the family business. Bean was in his late eighties, and although he had slowed down and was somewhat retired, he was still very involved in the company and the 100-page catalog bearing his name. Yet the aging founder knew it was time to groom his successor, and he chose young Gorman who had been taught well by Bean and his brother Carl (who had been helping run the company). Gorman took the reins of a company bringing in $4 million in annual sales the year his grandfather died in 1967.

A New Era

Although Gorman respected his grandfather's style of conducting business (such as never firing an employee or agonizing over failed products), he believed it was time to take L.L. Bean into the twentieth century. This meant applying the many technological advances that had become available and expanding into other areas, which his grandfather had not always favored. Leon senior had made all the money he needed, lived comfortably, and had often told his grandson, 'I eat three meals a day, I can't eat four." Yet to compete with its growing rivals, L.L. Bean needed to flex its outdoorsy muscles.

LL. Bean offers a multitude of programs and activities so that employees can become experienced and knowledgeable about the outdoors. Programs include Fly Fishing School, which is a three-day course, and three yearly "outdoor experience days."

While L.L. Bean was never considered fashionable, it did hold a certain elitist charm for its many loyal customers, who spent more than $30 million a year on Bean merchandise. To them, L.L. Bean meant the best of the best for their pursuits, providing warmth, durability, and practicality. Younger generations had long found the firm's apparel the opposite of fashionable, and so it was with some surprise that L.L. Bean was awarded the prestigious Coty American Fashion Critics Award in 1975. The commendation was not only a tribute to the company's enduring popularity but marked a resurgence of the old-fashioned, down-to-earth kind of fashion that had always been L.L. Bean's image. Many of the people who had mocked L.L. Bean's folksy appeal now embraced it as mainstream style.

By the beginning of the 1980s, L.L. Bean sales were $140 million and mushroomed to $250 million by 1984. When the firm celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary in 1987, not only was the L.L. Bean catalog still the mainstay of the company, with over seventy-five million copies mailed to customers annually, but the Main Street store had become a true tourist destination attracting some two million visitors every year to see the six thousand products displayed from wall to wall. Sales for 1987 surpassed $360 million, with nearly two thousand workers taking orders and selling merchandise.

An important part of L.L. Bean's continuing success was its willingness to both sell and repair its merchandise, most especially its updated Maine Hunting Shoe, which became known as the Bean Boot. Customers could have their boots resoled for half the price of a new pair, and the firm repaired and shipped more than sixteen thousand pairs a year by the end of the decade.

Trouble in Paradise

As the 1990s got underway, L.L. Bean was suffering from falling sales, soaring postage costs, and high returns. The once mighty retailer was considered dull compared to its competitors, which included Lands' End, Patagonia, and Eddie Bauer, Inc. (see entry). With newcomers crowding the outdoor and recreational market, the rustic L.L. Bean lacked the glamor and youthful appeal of its rivals, who spent millions on hip advertising in newspapers and magazines and on television.

In response to sluggish sales, the company was forced to lay off some of its thirty-five hundred employees and stop production on a new manufacturing plant in Hampden, Maine. Yet Gorman was determined to turn things around. By 1992, he had installed new state-of-the-art equipment in the company's warehouses and factories, introduced more than two dozen "specialty" catalogs, remodeled the Main Street store into a huge three-story landmark, and formed partnerships with the Japanese, who were big L.L. Bean fans, to open new stores.

L.L. Bean made several moves in the middle and late 1990s to ensure its future against rivals Lands' End and Eddie Bauer. In 1993, the company launched L.L. Kids with apparel and sports equipment for children. It also expanded its women's line, started a company Web site in 1995, and introduced an on-line shopping service in 1996. While the earliest Web site offered little more than product descriptions, it evolved into an informational site that featured over a thousand products, and offered background on the company, outdoor tips, and even a travel directory for national parks.

Over the years, scores of the rich and famous confessed to being L.L. Bean fanatics, including such notables as diplomat Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), and baseball great Babe Ruth (1895-1948).

L.L. Bean Approaching One Hundred Years

By the twenty-first century, L.L. Bean had changed its image and embarked on risky expansion. In addition to its original Freeport store, a second retail store opened in Maclean, Virginia, and a third in Columbia, Maryland, along with several outlet stores. There were plans to open additional retail stores in the north and eastern parts of the United States, to give customers more of a chance to see L.L. Bean products up close. "We've seen catalog companies expanding into retail over the past few years," Stephen Berman, an analyst at Kurt Salmon Associates told Women's Wear Daily back in June 1999. "It's an opportunity and a vehicle for those businesses to reach additional customers who aren't necessarily comfortable not touching and feeling the merchandise." L.L. Bean was following the same formula in Japan, where the number of retail shops had grown to twenty.

In addition to opening more stores, L.L. Bean lent its name to something entirely different: a sports utility vehicle (SUV). Forming a partnership with Subaru, the new Outback Special L.L. Bean Edition SWV hit the road in 2000 and was competing with Eddie Bauer's Limited Edition Ford Explorers and Expeditions (see Ford Motor Company entry). Other new directions included launching the L.L. Bean Home Collection and women's skin-care line.

Along with new product launches and a spiffier image came a new CEO in 2001. After thirty-four years of running the company, Leon Gorman turned L.L. Bean over to a non-family member, Chris McCormick. "The family is comfortable with Chris," Gorman told the Boston Globe in May 2001. "The core traditions of L.L. Bean are in good hands." Gorman remained chairman of the board, while McCormick handled the duties of chief executive and president.

L. L. Bean has been known to personally deliver items promised for Christmas or special occasions. In 1996, an entire Federal Express 747 airplane was filled with late-arriving toboggans and flown around the country to ensure that kids received them before Christmas day.

McCormick had been with L.L. Bean for eighteen years and was well qualified to carry on the firm's long tradition of filling the needs of the outdoor and leisure markets. One thing, however, would never change: the L.L. Bean unconditional guarantee. Customer service would always reign supreme at L.L. Bean.

L.L. Bean, Inc.

views updated May 21 2018

L.L. Bean, Inc.

founded: 1912 by leon leonwood bean

Contact Information:

headquarters: casco st. freeport, me 04033 phone: (207)865-4761 fax: (207)552-2802 url: http://www.llbean.com


L.L. Bean, Inc. is a mail-order company specializing in outdoor products. In 1998 it had 24 different catalogs, representing seasonal items; specialty products for hunting and fly fishing; sporting goods; children's clothing; and household furnishings. In 1996 it distributed more than 115 million catalogs. The company's customer service policies have allowed consumers unlimited returns, as well as replacements of the soles of its Maine Hunting Shoe, the first product carried by the company. Taking advantage of the Internet, the company has considered conducting its mail-order business solely from its web site, allowing L.L. Bean to battle rising shipment costs.


In 1998 total revenue for L.L. Bean was $1.07 billion, up from 1997's $1.04 billion. However, both years were slightly lower than 1996's revenue of $1.08, but up from 1995 and 1994, which was $974 and $870 million, respectively.


Many analysts consider retail and mail-order catalogs to be a mature business in the United States. For example, the outdoor-wear market in Japan is approximately $405 million, only one-twentieth the size of the U.S. market. The possibilities for growth in Japan, according to analysts, is partially due to the fast-paced lifestyles, making outdoor activities appealing. For years, Japanese men worked extremely long hours, thus neglecting their private lives. However, a new trend to explore nature and family-oriented activities developed.

Many analysts have viewed L.L. Bean's outlet stores as a financially rewarding move. These stores, where most merchandise sold has been discounted for various imperfections, have allowed the company to recover approximately $.90 of each dollar's value it would otherwise count as a loss. L.L. Bean says its research has shown that these stores do not take away from mail order sales. In fact, the company claims, catalog sales have been higher where outlet stores exist.

L.L. Bean has been criticized by some for its failures in the European and U.K. markets. Some say the company's poor sense of audience was to blame. One analyst said customers wanting to place an order in these regions faced an ordeal. First, the prices in the catalogs were in dollars and not pounds. Second, the customer had to calculate personal shipping costs, duty fee, and taxes. Also, to place an order required dialing an American number. Some say pricing the merchandise in pounds and making ordering more simple would have attracted more customers there. Consequently, L.L. Bean did not have much success in Europe.


L.L. Bean's first product, the Maine Hunting Shoe, launched the company's success. Its first shipment of boots, however, proved faulty in that they all leaked. The rubber-soled, leather upper boots were rapidly fixed at Leon Leonwood Bean's expense, beginning the company's reputation of top quality customer service.

Located in Freeport, Maine, the company sought a mailing list of avid hunters once Maine's hunting licensing system was active in 1917. Leon Bean created a showroom for consumers in the Freeport area. In 1920 he constructed a store located on Main Street in Freeport. By 1937, sales had escalated to $1 million.

During World War II, times would have been tough for the company had the military not allowed Bean to design their boots. Continuing to grow and add products, L.L. Bean began staying open 24-hours-a-day in 1951. The company furthered its growth by adding a women's department store in 1954.

Leon Bean died in 1967 at 94 years of age, and witnessed sales having climbed to $4.8 million. Leon Gorman, Bean's grandson, took over as president. He brought in advanced mailing systems, improved manufacturing systems, and set a goal to attract nonsporting markets. The 1980s proved successful since sales grew steadily, averaging 20 percent each year.

Seeing a potential for growth in Japan, L.L. Bean signed deals with Seiyu and Matsushita. The first catalog and service facility was opened in Japan in 1995. Also expanding its market, L.L. Bean added a children's clothing line, L.L. Kids, in 1993. Due to overwhelming popularity, the company opened a separate clothing store for kids in 1997.


L.L. Bean's strategy for success started with a standard Leon Leonwood Bean called "L.L. Bean's Golden Rule." Simply, the rule exemplified his belief: "Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they will always come back for more." Customer service remains a large strategic factor in the company's success, backed by a 100-percent satisfaction guaranteed statement found on the company's retail stores and catalogs.

The other ingredients of L.L. Bean's strategy revolve around the way the company functions. For example, its main business has been conducted by mail-order. Factory stores exist, but their purpose has been to sell merchandise returned in a less than flawless state. Some items might have been returned without their original package. Others were items that did not sell well. In other words, the purpose of these factory outlets stores has been to get back the financial loss of those returned or never-sold products.


L.L. Bean claims much of its success was a result of its reputation, effective marketing, and enlarged circulation. L.L. Bean's sales dropped in 1989 however, forcing the company to lay off employees in 1991 and 1992. After that setback, the company began prospering rapidly and continued to expand. Increases in the postal rate in 1991 caused the company to charge a shipping and handling fee to its customers for the first time. Also in an effort to offset rising shipment costs, L.L. Bean set its sights on the Internet, creating its own web site as a means of mail-order service. The mail order business, the company's core business, accounted for 87.7 percent of the sales in 1995.

Sales grew by 10 percent—nearly $1 billion in 1995. In spite of these profits, the company offered buyouts and early retirements to eligible employees in 1996. The company claimed sales were $90 million below target range and it had to cut costs for the next three years in order to remain competitive. Considering the fact that from July 1994 to July 1995, 50 percent of American companies did some sort of downsizing, L.L. Bean's cost-cutting efforts seemed ordinary.

Due to market demand, L.L. Bean established L.L. Bean Japan in 1995. L.L. Bean's early efforts to expand throughout Europe and the United Kingdom were not as successful. Some analysts attribute this failure to many factors including a confusing ad campaign and ordering difficulties.

L.L. Bean added L.L. Kids, a children's clothing store, after the popular clothing line demanded its own business in 1996. The fastest portion of L.L. Bean's business in 1996, L.L. Kids grew 29 percent in 1995. The company has claimed it learned a valuable lesson—seize opportunities as they present themselves instead of waiting.


The newest trend of L.L. Bean's strategic moves has been to take advantage of technological advances to further its growth. In 1995 the company set up its own web site. Gaining new customers rapidly, the company made plans to put its catalogs on a Net Commerce server. Working with IBM and a consulting firm to develop an interface for users, L.L. Bean hoped to increase its customer volume even further.

Another recent change for the company has been in the area of customer service, long-established as a no-questions-asked, 100-percent satisfaction guaranteed policy. Due to increased dishonesty of many returns, the company has had to develop a more cost-effective return policy. The ability of a customer to return any L.L. Bean item without a receipt at any given point in time prompted some customers to try to return items they had bought at garage sales. One customer even tried to return clothes from a dead relative's closet.


Approximately 94 percent of its products carried the L.L. Bean label in 1998. The company manufactures more than 200 different products in six categories: Maine Hunting Shoes, handsewn footwear, sleepwear, dog beds, tote bags, and soft luggage. Bean's manufacturing center in Brunswick, Maine, also functions as a repair and refurbishment shop. In 1996, L.L. Bean reported that it replaced over 25,000 pairs of worn-out rubber bottoms on Maine Hunting Shoes.


In 1998, L.L. Bean offered its customers an Outdoor Hotline, staffed with employees who could give guidance on outdoor recreation topics, ranging from sea kayaking to backpacking. It offered to help customers plan trips, find the right camp site, or locate areas where particular fish were running.

FAST FACTS: About L.L. Bean, Inc.

Ownership: L.L. Bean, Inc. is a privately owned company.

Officers: Leon A. Gorman, CEO; Lee Surace, CFO

Employees: 3,600 (1998)

Chief Competitors: L.L. Bean competes with other mail-order companies, as well as store-based retail organizations. Some of its primary competitors include: American Eagle Outfitters; Coleman; Fruit of the Loom; The Gap; Hudson's Bay; J.C. Penney; J. Crew; Lands' End; Levi Strauss; Nautica Enterprises; NIKE; OshKosh B'Gosh; Reebok; Spiegel; Sports Authority; and Timberland.

As a special service to its Internet customers, its web site in 1998 linked to sites containing information on nearly 1,000 parks where they could camp, fish, hike, or swim—presumably using Bean products.

L.L. Bean, a nature-focused company, has committed itself to the environment. In 1996 it was the SCA's EarthWork America corporate sponsor. The efforts consisted of a day-long volunteer program with various conservation projects on the agenda. L.L. Bean also worked with several conservation and recreation groups to maintain the Appalachian Trail and has contributed $20,000 annually to the Grants to Clubs program of the Appalachian Trail conference (ATC). L.L. Bean's contribution has been the largest corporate donation to the organization.

The company also prides itself since, in 1996, it made the Trendsetter List released by the Labor Department in Washington. This list is comprised of retailers and manufacturers who make extra efforts to guarantee their products are not made in sweatshop conditions, including child labor, abusive conditions, and other compromising circumstances. In addition, it tries to support domestic manufacturing, particularly in Maine.

CHRONOLOGY: Key Dates for L.L. Bean, Inc.


Leon Leonwood Bean invents a boot made out of rubber and leather to keep the feet dry


The company opens its first showroom


The first L.L. Bean store opens


Sales top $1 million for the first time


L.L. Bean stores begin staying open 24-hours-aday


A women's department store is added


Leon Bean dies


A postal increase causes the company to charge a shipping and handling charge for the first time


L.L. Bean opens a kids line of clothing


The first L.L. Bean catalog and service facility opens in Japan


The kids line proves to be so successful, L.L. Bean opens a separate kids store


In 1998, L.L. Bean maintained its Freeport, Maine, retail store and factory outlets in 4 states. It also had 10 retail stores in Japan as well. Because L.L. Bean, Inc. has targeted upper- and middle-class individuals, 50 percent of which are men, Japan became an increasingly profitable market. The Japanese were used to catalogs carrying cheaply made items with no apparent theme, unlike L.L. Bean's appeal to nature. American catalogs, however, offered top quality goods with pictures of top models to help sell them. Hungry for quality merchandise, Japan quickly developed a $20-billion mail order catalog market. L.L. Bean's mail order sales in Japan for 1995 were estimated to be $200 million, equaling 80 percent of international sales for the company.



"an insider's guide to catalog marketing in the uk and europe." the catalog marketer, 26 march 1997. available at http://www.smartbiz.com.

cooper, lane f. "webbing for dollars: being a webmaster is taxing, but the work to keep an electronic-commerce site profitable can be herculean." web commerce, 13 january 1997. available at http://techweb.cmp.com.

lee, louise. "tired of shopper scams, retailers are tightening policies on returns." the news times, 18 november 1996.

l.l. bean home page, 17 july 1998. available at http://www.llbean.com.

"l.l. bean." nsm report company profiles, 14 november 1994. available at http://dmworld.com.

morency, r.r. et al. "a methodology to implement and validate ergonomic improvements to computer workstations at l.l. bean." r&d ergonomics, 28 march 1997. available at http://members.aol.com.

"secretary reich releases labor department's 1996 trendsetter list." news alert, 27 november 1996. available at http://www.newsalert.com.

semilof, margie. "internet world: hits and misses." interactive age digital, 3 may 1996. available at http://pubsys.cmp.com.

smith, jeff. "l.l. bean accepts 340 offers to leave, avoids layoffs." portland press herald, 24 february 1996.

strosnider, kim. "l.l. bean to build store in freeport just for kids." portland press herald, 29 august 1996.

——. "l.l. bean to open on west coast." portland press herald, 16 april 1996.

yamaguchi, mari. "japanese consumers embrace american mail order catalogs." associated press, 10 november 1996. available at http://www.virtuallynw.com.

yokoyama, kiho. "nature spawns a shopping bonanza." the nikkei weekly, 14 october 1996.

For additional industry research:

investigate companies by their standard industrial classification codes, also known as sics. l.l. bean's primary sic is:

5600 retail—apparel and accessory stores

L.L. Bean

views updated May 23 2018


American clothing manufacturer and mail order company

Founded: in 1912 by Leon Leonwood Bean (1872-1967), in Freeport, Maine. Company History: Company founded for mail order sales of Maine Hunting Shoe, patented 1911. Camping and fishing equipment offered, from 1920s; bicycles, cookware, watches, luggage offered, from 1930s; casual apparel offered, from 1980s; retail salesroom added to manufacturing plant, 1945; offered 24/7 service from 1951; first branch store opened, in Japan, 1991; began offering separate catalogues for men, 1998; opened first full-line retail store outside of Freeport, 2000; launched first women's skin care line, 2000; introduced SUV in partnership with Subaru, 2000. Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1975; American Catalogue Awards Gold award, 1987, 1989, for hunting specialties catalogue; American Catalogue Awards Silver award, 1989; American Catalogue Awards Gold award for women's outdoor specialties catalogue, 1989. Company Address: L.L. Bean, Inc., Freeport, Maine, 04033, USA. Company Website: www.llbean.com.




Montgomery, M. R., In Search of L.L. Bean, Boston, 1984.

Griffin, Carlene, Spillin' the Beans, Freeport, Maine, 1993.


Dickson, Paul, "L.L. Bean," in Town and Country (New York), February 1977.

Crews, Harry, "L.L. Bean Has Your Number, America!" in Esquire (New York), March 1978.

Longsdorf, Robert, "L.L. Bean: Yankee Ingenuity and Persistence Transformed This Little Maine Boot Shop into a Veritable Sports-man's Candy Store," in Trailer Life (Agoura, CA), May 1986.

Kerasole, Ted, "L.L. Bean: 75 Years," in Sports Afield (New York), October 1987.

Zempke, Ron, and Dick Schaaf, "L.L. Bean," in the Service Edge (Minneapolis, MN), 1989.

"Bean Sticks to Its Backyard," in the Economist, 4 August 1990.

Kaplan, Michael, "Gumshoe," in GQ (Gentlemen's Quarterly), October 1992.

Hirano, Koji, "L.L. Bean's First Japan Store," in Daily News Record (DNR), 13 November 1992.

Symonds, William C., "Paddling Harder at L.L. Bean," in Business Week, 7 December 1998.

Hays, Constance L., "L.L. Bean Casts About for Ways to Grow," in the New York Times, 14 August 1999.

Palmieri, Jean E., and Melonee KcKinney, "L.L. Bean Set to Open Second Full-Line Unit in Virginia," in DNR, 21 April 2000.

Dodd, Annmarie and Jean E. Palmieri, "L.L. Bean Warms to Its Male Customer," in DNR, 12 November 2000.


The assimilation of the work of L.L. Bean into the world of fashion design is a direct result of the eclecticism in late 20th-century culture. Sportsman, businessman, and inventor Leon Leonwood Bean stood outside the world of fashion during his lifetime. His mail order company, based in Freeport, Maine, began before World War I selling sporting garments and accessories which were innovative, durable and, once perfected, consistant in appearance over many decades. They were, initially, the epitomé of antifashion.

Founded on the innovative design of the Maine Hunting Shoe, patented in 1911, L.L. Bean's range of clothing came to include traditional articles such as leather moccasins, based on American Indian footwear, long red woollen underwear, and collections of well-made weekend clothes for sportsmen and sportswomen. The appeal was their comfort, durability, and timelessness of appearance.

Bean's early business success was aided by the U.S. Post Office's introduction in 1912 of a cheap parcel post service. Similarly, the construction of the national highway network and the expansion of private car ownership in the 1910s and 1920s promoted recreational travel for sportsmen and helped to create a need for the specific kinds of garments sold by Bean. Their shop in Freeport was open for business around the clock, 365 days a year, demonstrating a genuine devotion to customer service and an understanding of the particular needs of their specialist clientéle. Through its marketing policies, L.L. Bean came to represent solid, ethical values of conduct in commerce. The personification of integrity, L.L. Bean tested his own equipment prior to marketing, as the company president does today.

A notion of the L.L. Bean style had developed by the 1920s, when the company's catalogue was known worldwide. The catalogue had, from the start, a unique look and quality. Written in L.L. Bean's personal descriptive style, it was presented in a casual, scrapbook format, with its familiar Cheltenham typeface, plain wholesome models, and cover illustrations by America's foremost painters of outdoor life. By the 1980s, the catalogue had become an institution and a symbol for a particular lifestyle. It attracted references in publications such as Lisa Birnbach's The Preppy Handbook, which dubbed Bean "Preppy Mecca," and it was parodied in a National Lampoon "Catalogue" which featured a range of items including an "Edible Moccasin" and a "Chloroform Dog Bed." The genuine catalogue layout has contained such surrealist juxtapositions as jackets, trousers, and duck decoys.

Following the death of L.L. Bean in 1967, the business passed into the hands of his grandson, Leon Gorman, who expanded and modernized both the operation and its products while maintaining its essential character, rooted in Down East hunting and fishing culture. But modernization had its dangers. Enthusiasm for their newly developed synthetic fibres, useful in extreme weather conditions, had carried over to the range of casual clothing of the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1980s, however, in keeping with the rising tide of environmentalism and a new public appreciation of the natural, as opposed to the synthetic, L.L. Bean returned to 100-percent natural materials in their traditional clothes.

Expansion from shoes and outdoor clothing to accessories and equipment such as snowshoes, fishing gear, and canoes showed a keen awareness of links between apparel and the utilitarian accoutrements of modern life. Later catalogues acknowledged the rise of the fitness movement, with new lines of garments for exercising, water sports, and accessories for activities such as roller skating and cross-country skiing.

In 1975 L.L. Bean was recognized as a bona fide member of the fashion world when it received the prestigious Coty award. This accolade signified an expansion of the meaning of fashion and confirmed its role as a mirror on contemporary culture. The genius of L.L. Bean had been to recognize the recreational potential in his local surroundings and to invent ways to cater, through clothing, first for the growth of outdoor sporting activities and, later, to the booming leisure market.

Since its founding, L.L. Bean clothes have reflected the social attitudes, leisure pursuits, and health awareness of America while also embodying a dream about the unspoiled American landscape and the values it represented. Yet in the late 1990s, L.L. Bean ran into financial trouble. Its sweaters, parkas, khakis, and boots were no longer perceived as fashion-forward, but rather as clinging to the same outdoor and preppy looks that had been behind the company's success in the 1970s and 1980s. Analysts felt Bean's management had not kept up with changes in the mail-order and apparel industries. Many of its competitorsof which there were an ever-growing numberhad moved into the children's market, for example, but Bean had not. It also was out of sync with the industry in its continued direct response-only strategy. Therefore, despite a strong brand name, a high level of service and customer satisfaction, a reputation for quality, and a sophisticated warehousing system, sales were flat.

The company took several steps to effect a turnaround. While its original product, the Bean Boot, remained one of its bestsellers, it undertook to update its apparel and footwear styles. It also began to put profitability on an equal footing with customer serviceas opposed to its traditional belief that with good service, profit would followand increased marketing expenditures. Bean began to release catalogues for specific market niches, such as the Freeport Studio casual clothing and accessories catalogue targeted female Baby Boomers. Separate men's catalogues were introduced in 1998 and, by 2000, Bean issued six men's-only catalogues per year, emphasizing detailing and color palettes. The company similarly segmented children's and home products and now publishes 50 catalogues per year.

Meanwhile, Bean added new products and product categories that tied in with its brand image. In 2000 it introduced skin care products to its women's catalogue, focusing on items that protect the skin in the midst of an outdoor lifestyle. One of Bean's more unusual product extensions is a sport utility vehicle, the Subaru Outback Limited Special L.L. Bean Edition, also introduced in 2000. Bean also began expanding its distribution. In 2000, Bean opened its second full-line store (after its Freeport flagship). The launch marked the first step in a conservative retail strategy encompassing three to five new stores in the Northeast U.S. over three or four years. L.L. Bean also operates 10 outlet stores in the U.S. and 20 retail shops in Japan. Its stores feature both soft and hard goods, including the L.L. Bean Home collection. The company was an early entrant into e-commerce and has seen success with its Internet program, being rated among the top sites for sales and customer satisfaction.

Despite all the changes, Bean has remained focused on its core brand attributes. It is not attempting to become a designer brand which it feels would alienate its loyal customersbut rather to create a more cohesive presentation and a greater emphasis on lifestyle. L.L. Bean had parlayed this focus into sales well above $1 billion by the turn of the century.

Gregory Votolato;

updated by Karen Raugust

Leon Leonwood Bean

views updated May 14 2018

Leon Leonwood Bean

Think of the mail-order business and several prominent names come to mind-Sears, Roebuck & Company, Montgomery Ward, and Spiegel's, to name just a few. But perhaps none has achieved the unique quality, charm, and character of L.L. Bean, Inc. Renowned for its dedication to customer service and satisfaction, the highly successful company can be said to truly to reflect the experience and ideals of its founder, L.L. Bean (1872-1967).

Leon Leonwood Bean was born on November 13, 1872 in the small town of Greenwood, Maine. He was the son of Benjamin Warren Bean, a farmer and horse trader, and Sarah Swett. His parents died within four days of each other when Bean was 12 years old. He and his five siblings were sent to live with relatives in South Paris, Maine.

Demonstrated Entrepreneurial Skills

Bean's first business transaction took place when he was nine years old. Given the choice of attending the local fair or selling steel traps to his father, Bean sold the traps and earned his first income. He developed a love of the outdoors when he was quite young, and earned money by engaging in occupations geared to the outdoors. He worked on farms, peddled soap, hunted, and trapped. At the age of 13, he killed and sold his first deer. Bean paid his own way through private school, but his formal schooling was limited. It included a commercial course at Kent's Hill Academy and a semester at Hebron Academy.

Bean's limited formal education apparently was compensated for by the extensive experience he acquired through participation in outdoor activities. As noted on the L.L. Bean, Inc. website, Bean grew tired of having wet, sore feet after hiking in the Maine woods, so he conceived of a way to keep his feet warm and dry. He designed a lightweight boot consisting of a rubber bottom and a leather top. Bean took his idea to a cobbler, and the first "Maine Hunting Shoe" was manufactured in 1912.

Bean then launched his first advertising campaign, designing a marketing brochure geared toward Maine hunters. In it, he fully guaranteed the quality of the Maine Hunting Shoe and promised a refund on any unsatisfactory product. Unfortunately, Bean had to refund money on 90 of the first 100 pairs when the shoes developed cracks. But as the L.L. Bean, Inc. website noted, this led to "Bean Boots" and the "legendary guarantee of 100% satisfaction" that the company still honors more than 85 years later.

Undaunted by this failure, Bean went to Boston. With a $400 loan, he persuaded the United States Rubber Company to help him improve the quality and usefulness of the shoe. Bean then began selling the product with confidence. He sold enough shoes that by 1917, he was able to move his business to the main street of Freeport, Maine. He employed people to cut and stitch the shoes. The following year, he applied for and received patents on his product from both the United States and Canada. In a happy coincidence, Bean began selling his product at the same time the United States Post Office launched it parcel post service. When Bean's brother became postmaster in Freeport, Maine, Bean opened his factory on the floor above the post office.

Expanded Product Line

Bean's product line grew to include other items useful to people who lived, worked, and played in the outdoors. He designed and tested each product personally, believing that it takes a sportsman to design equipment for sportsmen. This practice resulted in products that were appreciated both for their practicality and price. His ideas included a duck hunter's coat that featured sewn-in mittens, all-wool socks, and the Maine Auto Sweater, designed for duck hunting and automobile riding. Bean also designed the Deer Toter. The Toter, consisting of a frame constructed on a bicycle wheel, made the task of transporting a dead deer much easier. It quickly became an extremely popular item for hunters. Over the years, Bean included even more equipment that was both practical and innovative, including items such as the Bean Sandwich Spreader, hunting knives, camping equipment, and an extensive line of clothing.

Bean did not believe in forcing unnecessary items on his customers. He frequently advised customers to return their Maine Hunting shoes for reworking or replacement-a practice that the company continues today. At the suggestion that he sell expensive eiderdown coats, Bean claimed that buying such a product would be a waste of the purchaser's money.

Quality Customer Service

Treating customers well became a hallmark of Bean's business strategy. He kept his company open 24 hours a day, aware that hunters and fishermen frequently need equipment or a license in the middle of the night. He listened to and addressed every complaint about the quality of his merchandise. As noted on the L.L. Bean, Inc. website, his approach, often called "L.L. Bean's golden rule" to his dealings with customers was simple: "Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they will always come back for more." This formula met with obvious success: the Aga Khan, Bernard Baruch, Doris Day, Robert S. McNamara, Eleanor Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Amy Vanderbilt, and Ted Williams bought their clothing and sports equipment from Bean.

Bean's initial three-page marketing brochure eventually expanded to become a 12-page catalog describing items such as the Maine Hunting Shoe, the Maine Cruising shoe, and the Maine Duck-Hunting Book. Over the years, the Bean Catalog (of which Bean was said to be particularly proud) was enlarged to include descriptions of 400 products, arranged in no apparent order. Its prose style was as clear, simple, straightforward, and unadorned as the manner of its originator. In one instance, Bean described a product as featuring a whistle "loud enough to be heard at a great distance." By 1967, the year of Bean's death, the L.L. Bean Catalog contained 100 pages.

The two books written by Bean, Hunting, Fishing and Camping, (published in 1942) and My Story: the Autobiography of a Down-East Merchant, (published in 1960), were also listed in the company catalog. The former sold 150,000 copies and included duplicate chapters, enabling the reader to tear out sections as needed (especially for use outdoors) while retaining a whole copy of the book. The book had run through twenty editions by 1963.

A Successful Company

Reports of Bean's personal attention to customer service and the practicality, price, and quality of his company's products drew attention to the growing business. Bean and his company soon were featured in national magazines. People were attracted to the folksy image and charmed by the catalog, and soon both attention and sales began to increase.

The success of Bean's business strategy is reflected in the increase in profits between 1924 and the 1960s. In 1924, the company had been operating for 12 years, had twenty-four employees on its payroll, and posted $135,000 in sales for the year. In 1937, sales of $1 million were recorded. By 1950, the company had more than 100 employees and achieved sales of nearly $2 million. By 1964, sales reached $3 million and profits were $70,000. However, despite the considerable profits, Bean was opposed to expansion, fearing that his customers would dislike change and its implied loss of personal customer service.

Despite his increasing age, and frequent trips to Florida, Bean remained actively involved in the business. He continued to run the company with the assistance of his two sons and two grandsons. He continued to edit and proofread his catalog, checking galleys of the 100-page book the week before he died. The catalog was mailed to the public on the day following his funeral.

At the time of Bean's death in Popano Beach, Florida on February 5, 1967, L.L. Bean, Inc. was a $4,000,000 business. It remains family-owned and family-operated. The company retains its address on Main Street in Freeport, Maine, and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state, drawing several million people to its doors each year. In the late 1990s, the company was being run by Bean's grandson, Leon Gorman. Gorman has brought the company up-to-date in business practices, by computerizing the mailing lists, increasing the number of catalogs mailed, and modernizing the retail store.

Through its catalogs, Freeport-based retail store, and eight stores in Japan it sells more than 16,000 products to more than 3.5 million customers worldwide. The company upholds its 100% quality product guarantee, and continues to refund money or repair products-even those purchased many years ago. Perhaps most important, L.L. Bean, Inc. continues the dedication to high-quality products and customer satisfaction that personified its founder.

Further Reading

Garaty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement Eight, 1966-1970, American Council of Learned Societies, 1988.

Fortune, April 5, 1993, p. 112.

New York Times, February 7, 1967, p. 39.

Newsweek, February 20, 1967.

Time, February 17, 1967, p. 90; February 20, 1967, p. 73.

U.S. News and World Report, March 25, 1985, p. 61.

"The Story of L.L. Bean," Welcome to L.L. Bean,http://www.llbean.org (March 8, 1999). □

Bean, Leon Leonwood

views updated May 18 2018


Tired of returning from hunting trips with cold, wet feet, Leon Leonwood ("L.L.") Bean (18721967) designed a new type of boot that combined lightweight leather tops with waterproof bottoms. In 1912, the success of his practical footwear launched a company with annual sales that reached more than $1 billion by the end of the twentieth century.

Bean was born and brought up in rural Maine. Since his parents died when he was twelve, he and his brothers and sister lived with relatives in various remote "Down East" (Maine) villages. Early in life Bean developed a passion for hunting, fishing, and roaming the outdoors. He worked at odd jobs to support himself, his wife, and three children.

In 1911, at age 39, Bean invented what he claimed were the first modern lightweight, warm, and dry boots. He called his boots the "Maine Hunting Shoe," and in 1912, while helping his brother run a small dry goods store in Freeport, Maine, he decided to sell the handmade footwear by mail order. His first step was to obtain a copy of the publicly available list of persons holding Maine hunting licensesthe natural market for his boots. Bean sent each of the licensed hunters his first mail order catalog, a three-page brochure, extolling the virtues of his new boots and guaranteeing 100 percent satisfaction.

He had to make good on that guarantee almost immediately. Ninety of the first 100 boots sprung leaks when the stitching holding the leather tops pulled out of the soft rubber bottoms. Without hesitation Bean refunded the purchase price of the boots to his disgruntled, but impressed, customers. He borrowed additional capital, improved the boot's design, and began to manufacture the improved footwear on a much greater scale. The Maine Hunting Shoe soon became a necessity for anyone seeking to hunt or fish in the Northeast wilderness.

By 1917 Bean's business had outgrown his brother's dry goods shop and Bean moved to a showroom across the street where customers could drop by to purchase his products in person. By 1925, with hand knit stockings and other associated items (such as shoelaces) added to his product line, Bean employed 25 people in his operation, and yearly sales had reached $135,000. Customers were attracted by the practical nature of L.L. Bean products and by the quirky, folksy tone of the catalogs Bean wrote himself. Most attractive, however, was Bean's reputation for honesty. Customers liked the old fashioned style and character of L.L. Bean, where the boss's motto for success was: "Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they'll always come back for more." Bean's guarantee was unconditional. No matter how long a customer owned a product, it could always be exchanged for a replacement or a refund.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, L.L. Bean continued to expand its mail-order business and product line; the company was incorporated on July 1, 1934. During World War II (19391945), Bean served as a consultant on boot design for the U.S. Army and Navy, and his company received several contracts for military versions of hunting boots and other outdoor products. By the late 1940s, L.L. Bean had become a household word, attracting regular visits from political leaders, sports and other celebrities and had added casual apparel, gear for many outdoor sports, and additional footwear to its line.

Throughout the last years of his life, in semi-retirement in Florida, Bean held his company relentlessly to his old fashioned business practices, limiting growth, and only slowly accommodating modern technology. By 1967, when its founder died at age 94, L.L. Bean was in danger of retreating into a comfortable, but constricted, niche market.

Under Bean's grandson, Leon A. Gorman (1934), who became president in 1967, L.L. Bean was drastically modernized. The company grew into one of the world's leading international mail order concerns, with sales of over $1 billion per year. L.L. Bean sells more than 16,000 products through catalogs, the Internet, a retail operation in Freeport, Maine, eight retail stores in Japan, and 90 factory outlet stores. The Freeport store, opened in 1951, is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and remains one of Maine's most popular tourist destinations. More than 3.5 million people visit the store each year. Over 4.5 million customers place orders from all over the world; as many as 180,000 orders a day are received by phone. Despite the company's phenomenal growth in the past three decades of the century, however, it has retained its founder's strong commitment to product quality, customer satisfaction, and love of the outdoors.

See also: Leon Gorman, Mail-Order Houses


"Bean Sticks To His Backyard." Economist Magazine, August 4, 1990.

Brubach, Holly. "Mail Order America." New York Times Magazine, November 21, 1993.

Montgomery, M.R. In Search of L.L. Bean. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.

"Obituary." New York Times. February 7, 1967.

Skow, John. "Using the Old Bean." Sports Illustrated, December 2, 1985.

The Company Behind the Catalog: The Story of L.L. Bean [cited March 4, 1999] available from the World Wide Web @ www.llbean.com/.

sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they'll always come back for more.

l.l. bean