FREEPORT, Maine — Back in the days before retailers like Gap, J. Crew or American Outfitters, there were guys like L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, David Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch.
In Maine, L.L. Bean found success without consumer research, focus groups or fashionistas to tell him what to sell. He sold only products that he personally used and tested. He backed them with a money-back satisfaction guarantee. And his larger-than-life personality was projected in his catalogs, where he came across as someone customers could trust.
"The important part of L.L. was his personality. He was a hardy, enthusiastic, outgoing guy. He shouted most of his conversations because he was hard of hearing and assumed everyone else was, too. He was a genuine presence," said his grandson, Leon Gorman, chairman of the board.
The retailer that celebrates the outdoors with Leon Leonwood Bean's Yankee sense of value is kicking off its 100th birthday celebration this week with the unveiling of a giant version of its iconic hunting boot set on four wheels. It'll be rolling into New York City on Wednesday.
A century later, the family-owned retailer that started with Bean's hunting shoe in 1912 has grown into a business with a $1.5 billion in projected sales in its 2011 fiscal year.
Along the way, the company has successfully expanded from a catalog retailer to an online retailer and a bricks-and-mortar retailer, and has managed to create a customer loyalty that's envied by others, said Kevin Lane Keller, a branding expert at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University.
"They had an iconic catalog that they had figured out. Now they're having to look at other ways to sell. That's part of modern retailing: You have multiple channels," he said.
The company has recovered lost ground during the recession, but consumer confidence remains a concern as retailers continue to discount merchandise to entice consumers.
Long term, the nation's sedentary lifestyle is as big a concern as competitors ranging from outdoors retailers like Cabela's to catalog merchandisers like Lands' End. "For us the challenge is people spending less time outside and engaged in traditional activities," said company spokeswoman Carolyn Beem.
While economic growth is slow, consumer behavior is changing rapidly, and it's a challenge to stay ahead.
"With the Internet maturing as a media channel, it has increased the pace of everything," said Geoff Wolf, executive vice president at J. Schmid & Associates, a Kansas-based catalog marketing specialist.
L.L.'s company got off to an inauspicious start.
Bean obtained the state's list of out-of-staters with hunting licenses, and sent mailings to his prospective customers, touting his hunting boot.
But 90 of the first 100 pairs sold in 1912 were returned after the leather separated; Bean had a satisfaction guarantee, so he returned customers' money, earning goodwill. He borrowed more money and enlisted a cobbler to make improvements before going out and selling more of them.
Five years later, he opened a store in Freeport.
His golden rule was: "Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings and they will always come back for more." And customers did come back for more, showing up at all hours. Bean always answered the doorbell. Thus became the tradition of the flagship store being open 24/7, 365 days a year.
By that time, Abercrombie and Fitch already had partnered on a store selling outdoors goods in New York City. In 1920, Eddie Bauer started selling sporting goods in Seattle.
Over the years, Bean added more hunting and fishing items, like trout knives, axes, tents, sleeping bags, skis, snowshoes and a waterproof gun pouch. As Gorman said, "He liked what he sold, and he sold what he liked," so his catalog carried oddball items like Underwood Deviled Ham, horseshoes, and pipes and pipe tobacco.
His voice came through loud and clear, and people liked it.
"I never figured out why his personality was so magnetic, but it was. When he died in 1967, we were concerned that the company wouldn't survive his passing," Gorman said.
The company not only survived but thrived under Gorman, who took over. Unlike his grandfather, Gorman is reserved and soft-spoken, but he gets credit for modernizing the company, formalizing Bean's "customer first" policies and creating the first computerized customer database.
Then came more rapid-fire changes: the toll-free number in 1985, online sales and retail stores from the Mid-Atlantic to the Midwest.
The company is still privately held, and that continuity of ownership over the decades has helped the company retain its identity, said Madison Riley, managing director at Kurt Salmon, a consulting firm.
Just being in business for 100 years is a milestone, but to be successful requires companies to walk a tightrope between retaining traditional customers and attracting newer ones.
Companies that lose sight of their identity or their customer base, or try to change too quickly, run the risk of becoming either a Gap, which lost customers after changing too rapidly in targeting younger customers, or Levi Strauss & Co., which was too slow to revamp its product line, Keller said.
"For any heritage brand, the key is to innovate and remain relevant," Keller said. "You're trying to balance the heritage, but yet you've got to do some things differently. That's the challenge, balancing continuity with change. You've got to get that right or you'll be left behind."