FREEPORT, Maine (AP) — Back in the days before retailers like Gap, J. Crew or American Eagle Outfitters, there were guys like L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, David Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch.
In Maine, L.L. Bean found success without consumer research, focus groups or fashionistas to tell him what to sell. He sold only products that he personally used and tested. He backed them with a money-back satisfaction guarantee. And his larger-than-life personality was projected in his catalogs, where he came across as someone customers could trust.
"The important part of L.L. was his personality. He was a hardy, enthusiastic, outgoing guy. He shouted most of his conversations because he was hard of hearing and assumed everyone else was, too. He was a genuine presence," said his grandson, Leon Gorman, chairman of the board.
The retailer that celebrates the outdoors with Leon Leonwood Bean's Yankee sense of value is kicking off its 100th birthday celebration this week with the unveiling of a giant version of its iconic hunting boot set on four wheels. It'll be rolling into New York City on Wednesday.
A century later, the family-owned retailer that started with Bean's hunting shoe in 1912 has grown into a business with $1.5 billion in projected sales in its 2011 fiscal year.
Along the way, the company has successfully expanded from a catalog retailer to an online retailer and a bricks-and-mortar retailer, and has managed to create a customer loyalty that's envied by others, said Kevin Lane Keller, a branding expert at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University.
"They had an iconic catalog that they had figured out. Now they're having to look at other ways to sell. That's part of modern retailing: You have multiple channels," he said.
The company has recovered lost ground during the recession, but consumer confidence remains a concern as retailers continue to discount merchandise to entice consumers.
Long term, the nation's sedentary lifestyle is as big a concern as competitors ranging from outdoors retailers like Cabela's to catalog merchandisers like Lands' End. "For us the challenge is people spending less time outside and engaged in traditional activities," said company spokeswoman Carolyn Beem.
While economic growth is slow, consumer behavior is changing rapidly, and it's a challenge to stay ahead.
"With the Internet maturing as a media channel, it has increased the pace of everything," said Geoff Wolf, executive vice president at J. Schmid & Associates, a Kansas-based catalog marketing specialist.
L.L.'s company got off to an inauspicious start.