I’ll apologize in advance to all my friends who are fans of LL Bean. I’m not. At least not the LL Bean of the past 30 years. I am aware they lead the retail world in customer satisfaction, their merchandise return policy is second to none, and their stuff is all top notch. So, what’s not to like, Grumpy??
Well, they no longer look or feel like Maine should look and feel. At one time (pre-1980) LL Bean defined (the real) Maine. Nowadays, they’re a well-run JC Penny. A modern $2 billion a year US corporation with stores as far flung as Tokyo. For all his emphasis on continual improvement and customer satisfaction, I’m not at all sure that LL would claim success if he were still with us.
Leon Leonwood Bean founded the company in 1912 based on his famous invention, the waterproof Bean Boot. By 1917 he opened his flagship second floor retail location on Maine Street in Freeport. LL never missed an opportunity to improve service. While the bulk of sales were generated by the catalog, hunters and visitors frequently dropped by Freeport. A night bell allowed the late-night visitor to call a watchman or even LL himself. In 1951, LL opened the store 365 days a year, 24 hours a day proclaiming, "We have thrown away the keys to the place."
The original store. I had the good fortune to visit it in the mid 1960s when my father and a few uncles and cousins trouped up to Maine for a canoe trip and we made the required pilgrimage to the Freeport house of worship. An experience. The original Freeport store had the appearance of an antique factory, with the business on the second floor, reached only by climbing a long central flight of stairs. While there, customers or tourists could watch hand sewing of moccasins and repairs being made to the original hunting boots. For many years, the hallway of the staircase was a virtual bulletin board used by hunters "from away" to communicate with fellow hunters. Regulars would have a niche in the stairway where their friends would put notes, and the custom lasted many years. Old codgers would shuffle around the worn wooden floors on the second story waiting on you with peak efficiency, in spite of their age. Plus, they knew anything and everything you ever needed to know about the Maine experience. If they didn’t know it, you didn’t NEED to know it. Case closed.
The new main street showrooms (all 200,000 sq ft) removed the old space and there is now a "campus" layout with different departments in separate buildings. Very Yuppie, very depressing as a recent visit to the campus reminded me. Still good stuff, no doubt about it, but can you tell it apart from JC Penny? I can’t.
Something has been lost. Bring back LL.