For 108 years, folks seeking the L.L. Bean brand bought straight from the company. There was no buying a Bean tote, coat, or hunting boot from the local superstore. But changing times often mean fresh strategies: Soon Bean goods will sprout up in other places.
Maine-based L.L. Bean has always sold direct. The strategy allowed the near-legendary company to control its image—from eye-catching displays to smiling salespeople. But for several years, L.L. Bean has dealt with flat sales and serious belt-tightening. The company has reduced its workforce, tightened its return policy, and trimmed its product lines. (See “Belt-Tightening at L.L. Bean.”) Still, sales dipped last year.
Bean officials are realizing the plan limits who sees their products. They want to introduce Bean to more customers—even if that means paying a middleman to get more sales.
Wholesalers are a type of “middleman”—someone who works between makers and buyers. Wholesalers purchase goods at a discount. They re-sell the goods to retail outlets (regular stores) to make a profit.
The Bible compels people to act fairly: “If you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.” (Leviticus 25:14) Just dealings build buyer confidence. They also promote spending and growth.
With the new plan, L.L. Bean sees an opportunity to grow while other direct retailers may wither, says merchandising vice president Charlie Bruder. For the plan to work, Bean will need to charge the wholesaler less for each item. Company officials hope they’ll make up that money in the long run with more sales.
The company believes it can win customers for life—if they’ll just try the products. The key was finding retailers who share the company’s customer service philosophy. So Bean is entering its first-ever U.S. wholesaler agreements with Nordstrom, Staples, and sporting goods chain Scheels.
Bean backpacks and water bottles already appear in more than 1,000 Staples stores. Bean gear is also popping up in some Midwest Scheels stores. Twenty Nordstroms will offer classics like fleece, flannel, and the famous Bean boot. (See “Bootmobile Shenanigans.”)
The move to other stores isn’t completely new for Bean. The company already sells products in some stores in Canada and Japan.
Reaching consumers without opening stores or signing rental agreements is a smart approach, say analysts.
Still, L.L. Bean remains committed to its own stores. It will press forward with opening more of their own Bean brand stores as well. “When people come into our stores, our staff is incredible,” Bruder says. “There’s no substitute for that.”