An appeal to L.L. Bean’s soul

The treasured Maine outdoor retailer of my youth has lost its way.
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My son, Jack, and stepdaughter, Susanna, outside L.L. Bean’s flagship store in August 2017.

Our annual summer trips to Maine have a comforting sameness to them: reacquainting with family members; eating Sam’s Italian sandwiches and lobster rolls; running along the ocean.

Another requisite is our pilgrimage to Freeport, home to outdoor retailer L.L. Bean. With little prompting, my son, Jack, and stepdaughter, Susanna, take their places on each side of the giant Bean boot for a photo outside the company’s flagship store.

However, in recent years, “shopping” at Bean has become more of an obligation met than an experience anticipated. I browse, rarely buy, and mostly yearn for what Bean used to represent.

Bean, in short, seems lost in the woods.

I’m not alone in this sentiment. Consider the comment posted to Bean’s Facebook page on Aug. 18 by a Georgia customer:

“I would love it if you sourced more of your merchandise from US manufacturers. I have seen the quality of your products go downhill over the past 20 years….. I’ve shopped your store for over 40 years. I would be willing to pay more for better quality,” she wrote.

To be fair, many customers remain loyal to Bean, and with good reason. Begun in 1912 by Leon Leonwood Bean, L.L. Bean has a well-earned reputation for the high quality of its products and for standing by them if anything wasn’t up to par; for employee, customer and community relations; for stewardship of the environment.

American icon

Having grown up 15 miles from the flagship store, I can’t remember life without Bean. My mother worked in customer service (in Freeport and Lewiston) for Bean many years.

On this visit to Maine, I packed my clothes in the same red Bean duffel bag with which I left for college more than 30 years ago. Among my book collection is, “L.L. Bean: The Maker of an American Icon,” by the founder’s grandson, Leon Gorman.

But Bean at 105 is in need of a reboot. Among the signs: flat sales; buyouts and layoffs; a recall of Chinese-made children’s water bottles because of lead contamination. For good measure, there even was a flap involving one of the 50 Bean-family owners and Donald Trump.

The company’s relatively new CEO, Dickinson College graduate Stephen Smith, acknowledged the challenge before him in a March 2017 story in Boston Magazine.

“Everybody knows L.L. Bean in America,” he said. “But there are a lot of people we just aren’t relevant to.”

The magazine noted that just 2 percent of American consumers are Bean customers.

Ask anyone in my family between the ages of 16 and 56, and they’ll tell you that they find it hard to spend money at Bean, and not for a lack of trying. What good is a proliferation of products if few of them resonate with customers?

I applaud Smith for wanting to reduce the more than 150,000 different items Bean currently carries.

“We have too much stuff,” he said. To which I would add: and too much of it made overseas and not all that stylish.

Jack and Susanna in 2006.

When I think of the Bean of my youth, when I pored over the latest mail-order catalog, what comes to mind are essentials such as Bean boots, chamois shirts, leather work gloves, all made in the United States.

In 20 states

Nowadays, Bean knocks off itself: offering a cheaper (in price and quality) version of its iconic Maine-made tote bags that’s produced in Indonesia.

Boston Magazine said 25 percent of Bean’s products are U.S.-made (that seems really high to me based on the labels I’ve looked at over the years), including Bean boots, dog beds, belts and tote bags made at Bean’s Maine factories. Smith noted the many knock-offs of the rubber-bottomed Bean boot.

From Boston Magazine: “Everyone else can copy it,” he says with a grin, “but none of them are made in Maine.”

That’s exactly right, so why not sell more products made in Maine, or at least the United States? With net sales of $1.6 billion in 2016, Bean has the ability to support more domestic manufacturing, which would help restore luster to the brand.

Bean generates its sales from catalogs, its website (web orders surpassed catalog orders in 2009), and more than 40 stores (retail, outlet and mall kiosks) in 20 states. I get that Maine isn’t proximate for most Americans, but it was special when Freeport was the one and only physical store.

It took work to get to Bean, but it was worth it.

Downtown Freeport remains quaint despite a bounty of standard-issue national retailers; McDonald’s even operates from a Victorian mansion. And there’s no doubt that Bean is the centerpiece it always has been, operating 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, and its seven-acre campus drawing more than 3 million visitors per year.

In 2014, on a cool moonlit evening, we attended a performance by Josh Ritter as part of Bean’s annual summer concert series in the campus’ Discovery Park. On that night, with the main store gleaming in the background, there wasn’t any other place in the world I wanted to be.

Customers who have to settle for Bean stores at the King of Prussia Mall near Philadelphia or Tysons Corner in Virginia, for instance, can’t begin to appreciate the specialness of the flagship store. So if I had my way, Bean would, at most, operate a small number of larger regional stores that would approximate the experience found in Freeport.

In those stores, at least half of the products would be made in the USA.

And outside, customers would stand for pictures next to a giant Bean boot.

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