L.L. Bean Challenged To Maintain Top Customer Service While Exploring New Horizons

Last Updated Nov 30, 2010 6:58 PM EST

Anyone who has visited the L.L. Bean campus of stores in Freeport, Maine recognizes that the retailer believes in what it is doing, and that seems to translate into an ability to satisfy customers.

As it pursues expansion plans, though, diligence will be needed to keep customers happiest.

The National Retail Federation/American Express Customer Service Survey returned L.L. Bean as its top performer. The outdoor outfitter promotes the value of experiences in nature, even organizing kayak trips and teaching customers how to fly fish. It's main consideration, though is selling jackets, boots and fleece to shoppers who want to get into the outdoors or at least survive them on their way to work or the grocery store. Its enthusiasm clearly translates into customer service that sends shoppers away happy, and continues to do so even as the company expands beyond its Maine base.
In fact, when it opened up its latest new store in summer 2009, instructors from L.L. Bean's Outdoor Discovery Schools offered free kayaking and fly-casting classes from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. all July 24 weekend to folks stopping by the Dedham, Mass., location. And if that wasn't enough to draw a crowd, the store also offered the spectacle of two giant Maine moose engaged in a locked antler battle. Of course, the critters involved, part of a display dubbed The Final Charge, State of Maine Locked Moose, were stuffed, but L.L. Bean also offers shooting instructions so the exhibition of taxidermy was consistent even if not PETA approved.

Although not everyone would caper at the moose-capades, few would object to the 30,000 square foot store being built to the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standards for environmental friendliness.

Part of L.L. Bean's expansion drive beyond its Maine stronghold, the Dedham store launched as the lucky 13th location the company operates outside of its home state. Last year, the company also announced plans to open a store in Philadelphia.

L.L. Bean has been branching out in many directions. At the same time it was opening the Dedham store, the company introduced its first iPhone game application, Moosentration, that allowed players to test their memory skills by matching images including L.L. Bean boots, Maine lighthouses and the Pine Tree State's woodland habituates.

In a more substantial introduction, March will see the launch of L.L. Bean Signature, a lifestyle clothing collection that, while steeped in the company's tradition, also will add a more contemporary element. The company tapped Alex Carleton, founder of the Rogues Gallery fashion label and once an L.L. Bean senior designer, to become Signature creative director. In the capacity, he has been tasked with designing a product line that suits a wide range of customers who want utilitarian apparel, but not just in terms of an ability to withstand the weather. The focus of the Signature label is clothing that works around the clock, the retailer stated, day or evening, work or weekend.

L.L. Bean has not had it all its own way recently, experiencing softer sales, but it could might have bunkered in for the recession particularly given an economic climate has favored retailers that maintain reputations for bargains over those that make quality and service central. L.L. Bean has stuck to its guns, though, developing its brand and continuing to make the investments needed to maintain its service standards. As it was voted number one over names such as Nordstrom (JWN) â€" which didn't do badly at number seven on the list â€" L.L Bean customers certainly demonstrated appreciation for the service it offers.

Yet, now the trick will be to continue garnering that kind of appreciation as the company expands to new territories and lures new customers with fresh approaches to its product line. In effect, the retailer has to remain authentic to its brand and traditions even as adapts to its evolving situation. If it can't keep up the customer service, L.L. Bean will become just another sportswear store confronting issues of how it can cut prices and if it must qualify quality.