Saturday, November 13, 2010

LL, We Hardly Knew Ye

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.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

I read the history of LL Bean a few decades ago, and one fact stuck out in my mind. As the catalog sales of clothing became the bulk of the money-making part of LL Bean, they started to discontinue all the camping equipment. It was taking up space on the shelves without generating revenue. But as soon as they took out all the real hunting and camping equipment, their clothing sales fell off. Pretty quickly, they figured out that the authentic backwoods stuff was necessary to their image. People wanted the illusion that they were mixing with real outdoorsmen.

In those days, in addition to the lined yellow slickers, the clothes leaned even more heavily to the Bar Harbor ugly pants of the prep school rich. Pants were offered in Nantucket Red - probably still are, and someone buys 'em. LL Bean hit upon the idea of naming every color in natural, outdoorsy terms: plum, stone, moss. They next added in all the place-names from Maine: Katahdin, Portland, Casco Bay. Marketing genius.

BTW, that book also opened my eyes to how the different tourist industries in Maine, NH, & VT influenced the states' culture and destinies, despite initial similarities. Maine had the deep woods and the coastal "cottages." NH had the enormous fancy hotels where the wealthy would send their families by train for the summer, riding up on weekends themselves. VT had the country inns.

Anna said...

Hoo boy, where to start. I agree with you about LLB, and would add that 99% of Mainers can't afford the stuff anyway so we don't wear it. (I grew up near where that Discovery Channel show American Loggers is filmed).

Second of all, those yuppie REI people are the most disgusting people in the world to me. These Bostonites or New Yorkers think they are all hardcore wearing The North Face clothes and hiking or rafting once in a while (real Mainers can't afford to raft). They go on canoe trips to the Allagash with nothing but a guide book and 8 cases of beer. I have seen people take off with kids wearing leg casts and stuff, they do not realize how much danger they are in. I have known people who died of exposure.

They come and make fun of the locals for being Stupid Hicks, and then freak out if their camping spot remotely looks like anyone was ever there before (real Mainers can't afford to rent those camping spots). They use all this church imagery to describe the woods "Cathedral" etc etc. They try to preserve the land forever, never mind that it is actually our backyard and we actually live there, we are too stupid to take care of it.

They are anti-hunting and anti-picking flowers, yet leave trash because they think they are so moral so they can litter once in a while. They think they know more about survival than the locals because they took a half hour seminar at REI or whatever.

To them, bad stuff is never supposed to happen in the woods. If one of them gets hurt, lost, or sick, they call 911 on their phones and get the rangers to rescue them (on our tax dime) and they never learn anything from it.

They think that they are all "green" and stuff, while wearing $8000 dollars worth of gear all made in China. Yet us locals are the stupid ones, hmm.

Whenever I see a Subaru with a Thule roof case and out of state plates, I get very unhappy. Clueless, clueless people, all of them.

Donna B. said...

Anna: sounds exactly like the way 'native' Coloradoans feel about visiting Californians and Texans.

Anna said...

I can't even imagine how bad Colorado is. At least Maine has the advantage of being far away from most places.

I say we take all those people, without their gear, and put them on a mountaintop for a week. They will kill each other off quickly and then we will have peace.

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

Anna: You make many good points. My wife and I lived in Bangor for three years and then through most of the 1980s the majority of my professional work involved Maine projects, helping companies get environmental permits, complete environmental impact statements, etc. One common frustrating thread was the growing discussion that “Maine didn’t need industry anyway.” Deny the permits and let’s turn the northern half of Maine into one big state park. Mainers can then make a living from the tourist “industry.” The people advocating for this were out to lunch. You’re proposing to replace $35/hr paper mill jobs with $8/hr positions at a town’s Information Booth and expect that everything will somehow work out fine? I don’t think so.

Anna said...

Funny, that is exactly what I am doing now, filing lots of environmental permits for developments. It hasn't gotten better, probably worse. About ~5 years ago, the DEP enacted vernal pool protection regulation and I remember I was at an educational seminar when one of the DEP trolls openly admitted that one of the goals of the legislation was to stop development for its own sake.

There are also new SLODA regulations due out soon, wherein people can only file SLODAs (3+ acres of development) if your parcel has been pre-approved by the DEP. Which is kind of scary.

Not only that, but there is the local component. Towns like Freeport, Rockland, and Belfast have monstrous ordinances and difficult review procedures, so no one can build anything unless they have the money to hire an army of lawyers and engineers, etc.

They all think that they are doing good for the future, but everyone is going to remember them as destroyers (and already do).

Although I confess it has been hilarious to watch the anti-development environmentalists duke it out with the wind-farm environmentalists. People have been arrested, etc.

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

Ha, I went to grad school at UMO with some of the DEP water group trolls. Back in the 1980s when hydropower was supposed to be the new "green" several DEP staffers openly stated their personal opposition to specific projects even before the developers had done any impact studies. Fun times.