More consumers are picking their L.L. Bean boots with a mouse click than a page flip.

For the first time in its history, the outdoors retail giant expects annual sales from its Internet business to surpass those from its glossy catalogs.

While the bulk of sales still take place in Bean’s many stores, the shift online may lead to a smaller catalog and potentially a smaller work force.

But the company says it’s preparing itself for a future where it can reach out across multiple forms of media and offer customers more shopping choices than in the past.

“A lot of people like the catalog to browse and place orders online when they’re ready, and some people like to do shopping online without the catalog,” said L.L. Bean company spokeswoman Carolyn Beem. “Whatever their preference is, we’re right there with them.”

Bean is a privately held company and does not disclose earnings, but officials said online sales will outpace catalog sales for 2009. Bean customarily announces sales results in the spring.

Beem said online sales have run close to catalog sales for many years, and the company is finding that consumers’ shopping habits are changing.

The company has invested in improving its Web site and order fulfillment system, as well as giving customers ways to interact with Bean online, Beem said.

L.L. Bean.com offers shoppers the ability to rate and review what they order, and customers can ask questions about products through online chats, Beem said.

“We’ve been actively responding to customers and how they choose to shop,” she said.

Robert Heiser, a professor of marketing who studies online business at the University of Southern Maine School of Business, said consumers want basic things when buying products over the Internet.

CUSTOMERS NEED ASSURANCE

To be successful, companies like Bean need to assure customers their sites are safe and make it easy for shoppers to find and purchase merchandise without problems, Heiser said.

Having name recognition like Bean’s can also go a long way to help customer confidence, he said.

“Direct mail business is being substituted by online retailing. That trend has been happening for a couple of years,” said Heiser.

But Bean’s business has endured a number of shocks in recent years as revenues slid, resulting in a reduced work force and slower pace of growth for new stores. Last year the company eliminated about 150 jobs after revenues dropped by 7.8 percent, to $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2008.

Last year, Bean announced a call center in Waterville will close its doors next month. The center employs 200 people year-round and as many as 500 during the holiday season. Bean maintains three other call centers, in Portland, Bangor and Lewiston.

In November the company decided to close its outlet store in downtown Portland, which had been on Congress Street since 1996.

The company currently runs 15 outlets, including in Ellsworth and Bangor, as well as Freeport, near the flagship store. The company operates 13 full-price stores.

According to the Maine Department of Labor, L.L. Bean was in the top five of Maine’s 50 biggest private employers in 2009, based on average monthly employment.

Tom Yake, a retail analyst with Yake & Associates in Kennebunk, said Bean’s expansion plans in recent years contributed to the company’s problems.

OPENING STORES, EXPLORING LINES

Last year Bean opened a new store in Dedham, Mass., although at one point plans called for as many as eight new locations in 2009. At the same time, the company is exploring new types of clothing and outerwear, in addition to hunting, fishing and camping gear, Yake said.

For Bean to succeed, it needs to focus on the retail experience, customer service and being the top outdoor goods supplier, he said.

“They’re getting back to basics now. They lost track of who they were for a couple of years,” said Yake.

For almost 100 years, the iconic Bean catalog was a staple of that business, reaching customers across the country and around the world. But now catalogs have joined e-mail as a means of marketing products, instead of being a direct sales vehicle, said Jack Schmid, founder of J. Schmid & Associates, a Kansas-based catalog and direct marketing consulting group.

“Instead of saying you must buy from a catalog or retail store or online, let the customer decide how they want to purchase,” Schmid said.

Shifting business from catalogs to online sales also results in work force changes for most companies, said Schmid.

In general, online operations are smaller and require a different skill set than the call centers needed for catalog support, he said.

STILL DEMAND FOR WORKERS

Schmid said there will continue to be demand for workers in “picking, packing and shipping” departments as customers have higher expectations of how fast they can receive their orders.

Though the make-up of Bean’s business has changed, don’t expect fly fishing rods, down vests or Bean boots to stop appearing in the mailbox.

“The catalog won’t be going away, that’s what keeps the company top-of-mind with customers,” Beem said.

Though the catalog may become smaller and the design may change, the content won’t, Beem said.

Customers enjoy the iconic catalog for more than just the clothing or outdoors supplies they can buy, she said.

“I think (catalogs) represent not just the products we sell but the personality of the company,” Beem said.

Staff Writer Justin Ellis can be contacted at 791-6380 or at

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