Posted by: Jerry Garrett | December 30, 2009

L.L. Bean’s Round-the-Clock Retail Wonderland

Where do you go at 2 a.m. when you need a corkscrew? If you're in Freeport. Maine, it's L.L. Bean, home of the famous Maine hunting shoe. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Garrett)


It was 2 o’clock in the morning, and I needed a corkscrew.

Fortunately, I was staying in Freeport, the central Maine home of the venerable outdoor outfitter L.L. Bean. Bean’s flagship retail store is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. So it was no trouble – other than the icy winter weather and slick roads – to pop over to pick up a Swiss Army knife.

I selected a Victorinox model with 36 functions, including the corkscrew. That might have been a bit of overkill, but if I decided the next morning, or sometime in the future, that I had chosen more knife than I needed, Bean does not question my right to return it. In fact, they try to make it – everything from the shopping to the returning – as pleasant an experience as possible.

That’s because they want you back as a customer. Again and again.

Online shopping with Bean’s classic catalog in hand is always an educational experience; the catalog provides little vignettes about each item – how it is made, why you need it, and how you can use it.

The catalog!

But the real fun is in shopping in person at the retail store. People from around the globe make the pilgrimage to do just that.

The entire operation – now with about $1.8 billion in annual sales – has grown from the basement of founder Leon Leonwood Bean’s brother 90-odd years ago, to a Pentagon-sized collection of warehouses, large retail complexes, scattered across the center of Freeport. The town itself, however, remains a picture-postcard perfect New England village, full of quaint bed-and-breakfast inns, restaurants serving hearty fare in huge portions, and earnestly friendly locals. Well worth a visit!

Other retailers have seized upon the draw of hundreds of thousands of shoppers here each year to set up their own factory and outlet stores adjacent to the Bean complex. And the highways leading to and from Freeport are also lined with more malls and specialty retailers.

Those retailers observe more or less regular hours, however, and after about 10 p.m. Bean remains the only shopping option for insomniacs and night owls.

The shoe that started it all

In the wee small hours of the morning, are there many people out shopping for a canoe, a crossbow, shotguns, Bean’s signature Maine hunting shoe or any of the catalog giant’s array of rare, quirky and hard-to-find outdoor accessories?

“Oh yes,” said a clerk, manning the night desk. “It’s dead in here tonight – probably because of the weather – but some nights it can get as busy as during the day.”

L.L. Bean Home Store, all decked out for Christmas

Nights like that are generally when groups show up.

“We get a lot of busloads of tourists, conventioneers, and athletes, especially,” the clerk said. “After a hockey game down at Portland (a few miles south) we might get the entire team bus in here, on their way home.”

Quiet night: Bean's retail store at 2 a.m.

On quiet nights, like the one on which I needed my corkscrew, employees busied themselves cleaning the store, re-stocking the shelves, and spending extra time with those few who did show up to shop. To a man – and woman – the sales associates are extremely knowledgeable, and not just about their area of expertise.

“We know most of the items in the other departments, and of course in the catalog,” said another clerk. Many employees have been with the company for decades – worker turnover is minimal – and they can often cite information about items from catalogs of long ago.

“Yes, this sweater was discontinued two years ago,” a cashier told a woman who wanted to return a sweater with a zipper that broke. “It was a popular color, but we are out of them now. The original price was $49.95, although it was on sale at one time for $39.95.”

Even though the purchase had been made in 2007, and the item was no longer something Bean could re-sell, the clerk gave the woman a store credit – for the full price. She happily picked out something similar with which to replace the damaged sweater – plus a couple of extra items.

“I’ll probably come back in the morning and pick out a few more things before the family heads for home,” she said.

And perhaps that is the secret of L.L. Bean’s longevity – since 1912 – keeping the customer happy, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Jerry Garrett

December 30, 2009

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