Okay…I know this statement is not going to be popular with some of my friends who work at Cabela’s, but so be it. Truth is if I was to designate “the ultimate outdoor store” title on any store it would have to be awarded to L.L. Bean. Seriously, Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops probably have more SKU’s than ol’ Bean…but in my opinion there’s simply no matching Bean’s total commitment to equipping and educating the outdoorsman for their next outdoor adventure.
This past week as I crossed from the New Hampshire state line into Maine I pulled into the Maine visitor information center looking for a taste of what to expect on my trip. You see, I’ve been on vacation during the past week traveling from Boston up along the Atlantic Coast into Maine. Just my wife and me on what some might say was a second honeymoon, of sorts (since we didn’t officially have one when we got married about 16 months ago). Not really doing anything directly hunting or fishing related on the trip…just a relaxing sightseeing vacation along one of the most beautiful areas of our country.
As I ponied up to the counter at the visitor information desk, I bombarded the attendant with questions related to what I needed to do or see in the land of wild blueberries and lobster. After explaining where my travels planned to take us…he mapped out an itinerary that certainly kept us active. Of course, one of the stops included the city of Freeport, Maine…home of the famous L.L. Bean company store. I mean, how could you possibly visit Maine and not make time for an L.L. Bean store visit?
Now because I would be in Freeport on a Sunday I asked the information specialist…what time does the L.L. Bean store close on Sundays? He began to snicker, then said “young man…you can go shopping at Bean whenever it’s convenient for you. L.L. Bean is open 7 days a week and 24–hours each day.” Wow! Imagine that…a store that caters to your unique schedule as an outdoorsman and not just during some prime retail hours. It’s a concept that certainly scored big points with me.
Actually, L.L. Bean has several different stores in Freeport and they don’t all keep those same generous hours. They have their flagship store that carries most of the clothing, camping and outdoor gear. They have a separate Hunting and Fishing store just across the street. And they also have a boating and biking store all within about a minute walk of one another. Each of these stores are open around the clock. On the other hand, if you are looking for a deal on factory seconds or returns their outlet store is only a few blocks away and has very generous hours, albeit not around the clock.
As I walked around L.L. Bean I couldn’t help but compare the store to the more familiar Cabela’s, Gander Mountain and similar such stores back home in Minnesota. Many of the products I scrutinized were the same old items I have looked at in my local stores…but then many other items were somehow different. My wife who usually is sort of lukewarm toward shopping at Cabela’s really warmed up to L.L. Bean. Why? I’m not quite sure. It think part of it is quality…but another factor could very well be the presentation. So many of the big box outdoor stores try to pack so much stuff into one building it almost becomes overwhelming. Bean, on the other hand, is also huge…but you get a sense that the items they carry are more practical and time-proven for the outdoors.
L.L. Bean also seems to cater to the beginner…and I like that. Their Outdoor Discovery Schools allow participants of all kinds to experience various activities in the outdoors…perhaps learning more about something they have always wanted to participate in. After all, show someone a new outdoor activity, then develop it further and you’ll likely have a customer needing to make equipment purchases time and time again in the future.
Okay, I know some of the hard-core hunters will probably say that today’s L.L. Bean is geared too much toward the back-packing, canoeing and camping crowd. Can’t argue with that…they certainly sell lots of outdoor gear to folks who have no interest whatsoever in hooks or bullets. That is not to say, however, that L.L. Bean has gone green and lost it’s primary outdoor roots of a hunting and fishing supply company. At least not like Eddie Bauer evolving from a once successful sporting goods shop in Washington State into a yuppie, fashion-conscious brand that now has completely lost any evidence of its previous outdoor roots.
No, L.L. Bean seems to me to strike a great balance for everyone who enjoys the outdoors. This icon of the Northeast has a name and reputation that resounds nicely among most outdoorsmen even if they have never stepped foot into the history-rich store. In an age where most of the big box stores such as Cabela’s, Dicks Sporting Goods, Gander Mountain, etc. seem more focused on expanding their network of retail operation…L.L. Bean quietly let’s its reputation in the outdoors speak for itself. With only a handful of retail stores mostly in the Northeast…Bean seems content to focus on the customer and not solely on profits. I like that in an outdoors store…and you definitely feel that even after walking around in their stores for just a few minutes.
If you ever plan a trip out to Maine you owe it to yourself to make a stop in Freeport. While you spend several hours perusing the various L.L. Bean departments you can send your spouse a block away downtown to visit the many outlet stores that offer a shopping experience like no other.
Indeed, Leon Leonwood Bean may have been a cobbler by trade inventing the Maine Hunting Shoe and launching a successful family business more than 90 years ago. More importantly, you get the feeling that if old Leon was still alive today he would be proud of his store and the manner in which it continues to serve the outdoors public. I’m not so sure that same level of satisfaction exists with some of the founders of the other big outdoor retail stores.
Today there’s certainly a lot of competition for the sportsman’s dollar…and that can be good or bad, depending on how you look at it. To many sportsmen L.L. Bean might just be a small fish in an ever increasing ocean of retail competition, but for my money this is one company that understands how to treat an outdoorsman proper. Besides, any outdoor store that allows a person to buy quality outdoor products at midnight on a Sunday night, like my wife and I did last weekend…surely impresses the hell out of me.
2006 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.
Filed under: Fishing, Gear, Hunting, Outdoor Education | 1 Comment »