L.L. Bean and its famous Bean Boots have been a staple for many outdoorsy upper-middle class adults, but it is only in the last five years that the brand became a popular high-end fashion product for college and high school students, as well as young professionals leading to long waiting times and backorders. While it may seem these point to a problem in the company’s operations, L.L. Bean’s model has led the brand to its strongest point in over a century, with thousands of articles in fashion magazines and websites discussing nothing but the famous boot and its stockouts.
The Bean boots’ stated target is to provide Americans with high-quality (and high-priced) winter boots, handmade in Maine. In many ways, the business model has dictated much of the company’s operational model. The boots have maintained the same production process throughout its history as part of its customer promise in an industry that has shipped most of its manufacturing overseas. Even signature Made-in-the-USA brands like New Balance have expatriated as much of the production process as they legally can. “We realize we could outsource, but that will never happen,” Mac McKeever, a spokesman for the company, said. “The boots have been hand-sewn in Maine by our own skilled boot workers, and they always will be.”
The Production Process
The company operates two factories (170,000 square-feet each), both in Maine, where 500 workers put together the famous Bean boots (also known as duck boots) and other items, like tote bags. The rubber bottom is made by a machine and the rest is handmade. Each shoe takes approximately 85 minutes of labor (not including the breaks between stations). All materials used in the process are from the US and preferably from within the state. “A lot of the leather comes from right here in Maine at a tannery, other parts of the Midwest, the shearling is from Texas, we produce our own boot bottoms [and the] steel comes from local artisans who work for us,” said Eric Smith, a company representative.
Demand Increases, Slow Bean Reaction
After a century of stable demand, in 2011 the boots’ brand caché and trendiness rose rapidly, and for the first time the company experienced stockouts, leading to what became known as the “Bean Boot heartbreak” [See this Glamour Magazine article]. And the trend continued. Evercore’s ISI teen survey crowned it the top teen shoe brand in 2014, with double the popularity of its runner-up: Nike; and this year’s orders will more than triple the number of orders made in 2005. And the result: backorders that last until July, while at the same time, net sales are hitting new records each year, currently standing at $1.61 billion.
Since the increased demand, the company has consistently invested resources to increase capacity. This year it invested $1 million in a second molding injection machine, increased the number of bootmakers by 55% and added a third shift to the existing two shifts, so the factory now operate 24 hours a day.
Still, the stockouts persist, only feeding more fuel to the public hype around the uniquely-shaped boot.
In order to remain true to its original promise, the company would need to increase its capacity while adhering to a long list of constraints (local labor, manufacturing and raw materials, handmade process, etc). There are many possibilities for improvement, including introducing an automated assembly line, building new factories, and more. A company representative recently said, “the demand for Bean Boots has cycled up and down during the hundred years we’ve [been] making it. We don’t go out of our way to find those trends.”
While the wait times have garnered L.L. Bean significant press attention in the past few years, as demand continues to increase it becomes less clear whether the stockouts are part of a well planned corporate strategy to bolster brand caché, or simply poor operations management.
- CNBC. L.L. Bean’s boot boom going strong Date Accessed: December 09, 2015 [CNBC http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000340579]
- L.L. Bean Video Inside the Factory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZmL8xZyip
- CBS Boston Report on the Boot Craze: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VonKs1j2Uuw
- The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/llbean-duck-boot-labor-shoes-maine/410863/
- Bloomberg http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-29/why-can-t-l-l-bean-keep-the-darn-duck-boots-in-stock-