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Dressed for Success: L.L. Bean Takes On Retail

Bean had designed the Maine Hunting Boot to solve his own problem of wet feet, but once it was created, he knew it was going to be a hit. He was so sure of its innovative design that he even paid the hefty sum to have it patented. Once the local shoemaker had made a few more pairs, Bean began to promote his product.

Using a strategy of direct-mail marketing, Bean wrote a letter that began: “Outside of your gun, nothing is so important to your outfit as your foot-wear. You cannot expect success hunting deer or moose if your feet are not properly dressed.” He claimed his boots were “light as a moccasin, with the protection of a heavy hunting boot,” and set the selling price at $3.50 per pair. Bean then took that letter and made copies to send to all of the outdoorsmen from outside Maine who had recently bought Maine hunting licenses.

The letter was a success. 100 pairs of Bean’s shoes were ordered, and he had them immediately shipped off. But that is when bad news struck: 90 of the boots that had been bought were soon returned because the tops and bottoms had separated. Bean refunded all of his customers’ money and borrowed another $400 to come up with a new design for his boot. He knew there was still hope for the product.

Indeed there was. The boot’s new design proved successful, and the model took off. With the U.S. Post Office’s new parcel post service, business exploded. In fact, Bean located his first factory directly over his brother, Guy’s post office and established a system of chutes so that his packages could be sent off without any delay.

Bean’s steady success was such that in 1920 he was able to open his first showroom store next to his factory. From there, the company continued to grow. Within two years, it was bringing in more than $135,000 in annual sales. Profits were boosted even further when L.L. Bean boots were used on a highly publicized arctic expedition.

Soon, the company introduced its first full-sized mail order catalogue, which included a wide range of outdoor products apart from shoes. From clothes to fishing and camping gear, L.L. Bean was becoming the go-to retailer for all outdoor needs. Even during the Great Depression, when many other businesses were collapsing, L.L. Bean sales reached the million-dollar mark for the first time in the company’s history.

By the end of World War II, L.L. Bean had become a living legend whose stores were now outfitting even the likes of Franklin Roosevelt and John Wayne. Bean was approaching his 80s, but still going strong at the head of the company. He remained at the helm until his death in 1967, when ownership was transferred to his grandson.

As much as L.L. Bean has grown in the years since its founder’s death, his impact on its success remains impressive. In 1924, the company had $135,000 in annual sales. By the time Bean died, sales had soared past $4 million annually. Today, with over $1.5 billion in annual sales, L.L. Bean remains one of the most successful family-run businesses in the U.S.

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