L.L. Bean takes aim at active winter apparel

When consumers think of L.L. Bean, they don't typically picture a soft shell. At least that's what the company's survey of 10,000 customers indicated.

When consumers think of L.L. Bean, they don't typically picture a soft shell. At least that's what the company's survey of 10,000 customers indicated.

"We asked people for the No. 1 identifier when the name L.L. Bean was put before them," company spokesman Rich Donaldson told SNEWS®. "A provider of outerwear was at the top of the list," he said, but the active winter category was rarely mentioned.

However, L.L. Bean hopes this will soon change due to several new initiatives to inject energy into its winter outerwear offering.

"Our goal is to double (sales in) winter weather outerwear," Donaldson said. While L.L. Bean has typically lagged behind other companies in launching new apparel technologies, the company now wants to step to the front of the pack. In the future, you can expect to see L.L. Bean's line of active apparel grow significantly as it more aggressively pursues the most relevant new trends, such as soft shells.

"We want to be recognized as a company that provides outerwear for many applications, not just for the backyard or going out with the family. It's for cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowboarding," he said.

At a spring media junket hosted by Stanwood and Partners, SNEWS® got a look at a few new garments that typify L.L. Bean's focus on technical winter apparel. Bobby Berge, product line manager for active outerwear and accessories, held up the Headwall jacket, a $149 windproof soft shell introduced this spring.

"We actually introduced three soft shells this spring, and it's interesting that the Headwall, the most technical of the three, was the best seller," said Berge. Another example is the Glade jacket, a $299 waterproof soft shell that employs W.L. Gore's new materials that allow a garment to have fully taped fleece. With fashion-forward designs and colors, these pieces could fit into the lines of the outdoor industry's most technical apparel leaders.

To propel the company in its new direction, L.L. Bean increased its number of designers from four to 24 over the past year. It also helps that the L.L. Bean product development and testing facility has 16 full-time employees who performed about 40,000 lab tests in 2004. Also last year, its 1,000 individual field testers conducted 450 field tests on 3,000 samples.

L.L. Bean's overall outerwear business should also profit from other new strategies. Donaldson said L.L. Bean will eliminate redundant products to offer a more efficient assortment of SKUs. The company is also aggressively pricing popular products to compel people to buy them year-round.

"Our Adirondack Barn Coat sells for $49, so there's no resistance to buying it at any time of the year," said Berge.

The company is also rethinking its catalog strategy, knowing that paper and postage costs are expected to rise 16 percent. L.L Bean's 60 catalogs (down from 90 four years ago) represent its largest marketing cost. While there's no plan to eliminate any of these, they will be tweaked to get the most efficient return on investment.

Berge said that Bean's best customers will receive fewer catalogs per household. Money saved from this will be used to produce catalogs that have special mixes of products to entice new customers, or bring lost customers back to the fold. As its distribution becomes more targeted, the company may also reduce page counts by filling each page with a more dense collection of products.
L.L. Bean has also increased its retail presence. From 2000 to 2002, it opened L.L. Bean retail stores in New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. It is currently converting its liquidation outlet store in West Lebanon, N.H., to a retail shop. And Donaldson said the company is definitely eyeing new retail opportunities.

Currently, L.L. Bean operates four full-line retail stores and 15 L.L. Bean factory outlet stores that sell "discontinued first quality items and select seconds."

"We could open up as many as three new stores next year," he said. Bean has yet to decide on specific cities at this time.

With $1.4 billion in net sales in 2004, the company clearly has the muscle to make a serious push in winter outerwear. It reminds us of that old joke -- Where does an 800-pound gorilla eat? Anywhere it wants to.