Sunday, September 18, 2011

L.L. Bean - Big Shoes To Fill

An advantage of working with Retail clients is that you understand the method and the madness in deciphering consumer behavior. A lot of thought goes into the layout of the aisles, arrangement of items and diversity of choice. You develop immense respect for retail specialists and store associates whose business it is to observe buying patterns, develop insights, remain innovative, and offer an experience that buyers can cherish. 

But to me, the true measure of the iconic nature of a company is reflected in its culture, depth of innovation and interactions with its customers. These principles were in full play during my previous US trip when friends of mine strongly recommended that I visit the flagship L.L. Bean store at Freeport, Maine. That two hour visit inside this 24-hour-365-days-a-year store showed me just why this company is so adored by millions around the world. 

L.L. Bean is a privately held retailer specializing in clothing and outdoor recreation equipment. It has stores in the US & Japan, but derives a large share of revenues via its mail-order catalog and the web. Even before you enter, you get a flavor of its customer service and innovation. A large mock-up of its first-ever product, the Maine Hunting Shoe, frames the entrance. 

As you watch kids – and adults – pose by the shoe, a poster to its left proudly proclaims its lineage. In 1912, Leon Leonwood Bean returns from a hunting trip with cold damp feet, and thus is born the idea of a shoe with waterproof rubber bottoms and leather uppers. He sells 100 pairs to fellow hunters and sportsmen. 90 are returned because the stitching that connects the leather and rubber gives way. Although it nearly puts him out of business, he refunds the customers' money and improves the shoe design. A unique mail-order catalog company takes off.

An associate greets me as soon as I enter. I tell him where I am from and that I have been encouraged to visit even though I do not hike, shoot or fish. He smiles, offers a store map, tells me what to look for (there's tons of apparel and home furnishings to consider) and asks me how else he can help. I ask him something that I am sure will be met with either a 'No' or 'Let me check with my manager'. I ask him if I can take pictures. 'That's fine, take as many as you want' he says. I have been to 9 countries, worked in 6, have visited retail outlets in every one of them – and I can say with confidence that not many associates are empowered to give that answer in a flash in the cut-throat world of retail. Less than 10 steps into this store and I am already impressed.

You see memorabilia from the past. The first shoe.... the sewing machine where it all came together... and that classic quote by L.L. Bean that is relevant not just in fishing, but also to life (and may I say, to investing as well:-)).



As you walk further, you understand how one drives innovation by working closely with world-class requirements, pushing products to their limits of endurance, and constantly thinking of customers' needs.

You also realize that when you go into a store, you do not buy a product but live an experience. That explains why right next to a hunting platform (machaan) that is on sale, there is also a mannequin with the right apparel and gear.

But most of all, it dawns on you that their statements on customer satisfaction go right into their DNA. Above their check-out counter is a philosophy born 100 years ago that is relevant even today. It is their famed Return Policy that allows you to return their product any time after you buy if you are not satisfied. 

Outstanding values, great products, fantastic shopping experience, and phenomenal customer service. The recipe for true customer delight. We all know this - it is neither original nor unique. But only when you visit a world-class store like L.L. Bean (Apple store is the other that comes to mind) do you understand how all these ingredients must come together.

Don't miss this store when you are in Maine next.


Madhu Nair said...

Hey Arun ... Very well written. We had been to this store about 5 years back and were throughly impressed.


Jaideep Rao said...

The Best fishing is often on wet days- that's a lot of truth- good one sir..cheers