Despite calls for a boycott of the famed retailer’s goods, L.L. Bean reported a slight increase in sales for fiscal 2016 and said Friday that employees will be given a 3 percent annual bonus.
The Freeport retailer said annual net sales last year were $1.6 billion, “up slightly from the prior year,” when it also reported sales of $1.6 billion. As a privately held, family-owned company, Bean is not required to provide detailed financial information, so an exact comparison to prior-year sales isn’t possible.
In 2014, employees got an 8 percent bonus. For 2015, it was 3 percent.
It’s been a rocky year for the company, which faced a call to boycott its products in January, following a dust-up between L.L. Bean director and Donald Trump supporter Linda Bean and an anti-Trump advocacy group.
And last month, Bean offered early retirement incentives to employees and froze its pension plan, saying it hoped to shed jobs to free up cash for expansion and automation.
The bonuses this year are recognition of the hard work of the employees, said Steve Smith, L.L. Bean’s president and chief executive officer. About 6,000 workers will be eligible for the bonus.
“While it has been a challenging year in the retail environment, our employees delivered world-class service and products to our customers,” Smith said in the statement.
According to the company’s annual statements on sales, Bean’s sales have been essentially flat for the last three years, reported at about $1.6 billion each year since 2014.
In a statement, the company said that its results were “generally in line with the retail industry” and that Bean “outperformed its peers during the all-important holiday shopping season,” but it didn’t provide more specific information.
Paula Rosenblum, managing partner with RSR Research, which provides analysis of the retail industry, said essentially flat sales at Bean wouldn’t necessarily be in line with the rest of the industry. She said the Census Bureau recently estimated that total retail sales in the final three months of 2016 were up 4.1 percent from the same period a year earlier.
But she cautioned against reading too much into retail sales percentages. The continued awards of bonuses for employees, she said, suggest that Bean’s bottom line is healthy even if the top line – sales – doesn’t seem to be growing much. Few companies can award bonuses year after year if they’re not making a profit.
“There’s nothing really wrong staying at a relatively consistent size and bringing your money home in barrels,” she said. As a privately held company, she said, Bean doesn’t face the same pressure as publicly held companies for consistently strong growth. And the company can be patient with strategies that are designed to deliver good results in a few years, even if they’re not an immediate hit.
Rosenblum said the lack of details on Bean’s financial performance makes it hard to interpret the information that the company does provide, but Bean has a reputation and history that it can rely on.
“They do so many things so well,” she said, particularly the company’s essentially no-hassle return policy and its reputation for stellar customer service.
For that reason, Rosenblum said she doesn’t think the boycott controversy will have any lasting effect on Bean.
“You’ve got one person (attracting criticism) who’s on the board and who’s in the family who has very little say in the business, but overall, you’ve got a good karma business,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the L.L. Bean said neither Smith nor Shawn Gorman, the company’s executive chairman, were available for further comment Friday on the company’s performance.
BOOTS BREAK RECORD
One particularly bright spot for the company has been the success of Bean boots, modeled on the original creation of L.L. Bean that gave the company its launch in 1912.
Spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said the company sold about 600,000 pairs of the boots with rubber bottoms and leather uppers, another year of strong sales.
Bean first eclipsed the 500,000 pair benchmark in 2014 and then sold 550,000 in 2015.
Last year, the company brought a second molding machine online to make the bottoms and had three shifts of bootmakers operating in Lewiston almost year-round to keep up with demand.
Beem said Bean has purchased another molding machine, at a cost of about $1 million, and this year will have three of the machines operating to keep up with demand and add new features to the boots. She declined to say what innovations might be offered, but last year Bean used the presence of a second molding machine to offer more colors for the rubber bottoms on the boots, which she said proved to be popular.
Production has also moved to a new, larger location in Lewiston, Beem said, and brought in additional stitching machines, which will allow the company to increase production and hire more workers.
The darkest spot occurred over the controversy surrounding Linda Bean, granddaughter of the company’s founder Leon Leonwood Bean, who on Jan. 6 was accused of donating more than allowed under federal laws to a political action committee she formed to back then-candidate Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. A group called Grab Your Wallet, which targets companies and corporate executives that supported Trump, called for a boycott of the company.
Gorman tried to calm the situation by saying the company itself doesn’t support candidates and the controversy seemed to die down for a few days. But after Linda Bean appeared on Fox News to talk about the boycott, Trump stoked the controversy by sending out a tweet thanking her for her support and also encouraging people to back the company with their purchases. “Buy L.L. Bean,” the tweet ended, although a hashtag he used referred to “Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine,” which is a collection of Linda Bean-owned businesses not directly connected to L.L. Bean.
Beem declined to respond Friday when asked whether the company had seen any impact from the call for a boycott and there was no reference to the boycott in the bonus statement issued Friday.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: