L.L. Bean intends to ramp up production of its iconic hunting boot to capture a growing market ranging from outdoor enthusiasts to fashionistas, after finally clearing a record number of back orders from last winter.
The famed outdoor and gear retailer plans to increase production of its Bean boots by 20 percent this year, in hopes of topping last year’s record sales of 500,000 pairs. Its Brunswick and Lewiston factories have been operating triple shifts to meet the expected demand next winter for 600,000 pairs, some of which will sport – for the first time – red, blue or green rubber bottoms instead of the standard tan or brown bottoms.
“Boots are something you need to have,” said Carolyn Beem, spokeswoman for the Freeport company, of the boots’ continuing appeal.
Although already a mainstay in the closets of fishermen, hunters, hikers and other sportsmen, the boot remains popular among the fashion-conscious who may never venture near a snowbank or shovel snow and ice from a driveway.
“Fashion’s needle has not yet moved on from Bean boots and other comfortable, functional footwear and clothing,” said Christina Binkley, fashion columnist for The Wall Street Journal. “In fact, it’s looking like this is more long-term trend than fad.”
THE MANOLO BLAHNIK BOOST
Bean boots have become a key component of the “normcore” fashion movement, a term coined by combining “normal” and “hardcore,” according to Binkley. It refers to the idea of eschewing the constant shifts of fashion with its new must-have style every season, and instead building up a wardrobe of timeless basics that can be pulled out and put on at any time.
Although it’s been around for a century, the Bean boot got a jolt of fashion publicity in 2014 when the godfather of women’s footwear, designer Manolo Blahnik, gave a shout-out to the boots’ stylishness and stability.
Blahnik was asked by a fashion blogger during New York Fashion Week that year how people stayed fashionable while walking in snow. He pointed to a man walking near him wearing Bean boots and said, “Honey, you wear this. This is chic.”
Blahnik then told an associate: “Tell someone to go and get me one pair of L.L. Beans, because I cannot walk in the street.”
Beem said the company’s boots have grown so popular – if the projections hold, sales will have doubled from 2012-13 numbers – that Bean even reined in promotions last year, pulling the boot back from its premier spot on the company website and in catalogs. But this year, she said, the boot will be front-and-center again.
Sales of most of the boots are on the Web, despite the growing number of Bean retail stores around the country. The company now has 37 U.S. stores in addition to its flagship in Freeport and two outlets in Maine, plus 23 in Japan.
Binkley said fashion trends are expected to pay off handsomely for a company that fastidiously avoids trends. Even while it had its place in the forefront of the preppy trend of the early 1980s, the company held back from capitalizing on it, fearing that chasing a fad could lead to boom-and-bust sales and a warehouse full of suddenly not-so-fashionable goods.
But Binkley also said Bean needs to be aware of a wrinkle that’s developing in the normcore fashion world.
“There is an element of customization happening. It shows up in sneakers, for instance, where artists collaborate with brands to put out special editions for one-of-a kind takes on their normcore looks,” she said. “If L.L. Bean doesn’t get to it first by putting out the boots in more colors, or with prints, someone else will do it for them.”
MILD WINTER DIDN’T DENT SALES
Beem, however, said the company isn’t worried about anyone muscling in on its business, although it did plan to introduce a broader palette of colors for the boot bottoms last year, utilizing a new injection-molding machine that Bean bought and installed in anticipation of a continuing jump in sales.
The rush of orders was so strong that the company never got around to adding blue, green and red bottoms, Beem said, and instead stuck with its traditional offering of dark brown and tan bottoms.
“The reality was that we were more focused on fulfilling customer orders and back orders,” she said.
At the peak of the back orders, the company was at one point facing a 50,000-pair backlog and did not get fully caught up on production until July. Beem said the goal now is to introduce the colors for the upcoming season, which its 460 production employees are trying to do in round-the-clock shifts.
“That we can still produce it in Maine is a great source of pride,” Beem said. “We are immensely proud that the original item continues to be the most popular and most well-known.”
Last winter’s mild weather didn’t put a dent in the boots’ sales. Beem said sales of items like cross-country skis and sledding tubes were lackluster because last year’s winter was warmer and less snowy than normal, but Bean boots were still hot, even if people wore them clomping around on dry sidewalks.
“The beauty of Bean boots is they perform well in all types of weather – rain, sleet, snow, mud, as well as sunny days,” she said.