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Maine Man: The Story of L.L. Bean and His Company

L.L. Bean, the outdoor goods company known for cozy slippers, flannel wear, and nostalgia-inducing catalogs, has stayed surprisingly relevant across its 100 years in business. Its original Bean Boot has become a fashion statement of late, while its camping gear remains a go-to for millions of outdoor enthusiasts. Each year, more than three million people visit L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, Maine, helping fuel the company’s $1.6 billion in annual sales.

And it all started with a man who was tired of wet feet.

Leon Leonwood Bean—"L.L." to everyone who knew him—was an avid hunter and fisherman who never envisioned himself running a business, much less a multimillion dollar company. All he knew was that he had a persistent problem: Every time he went moose hunting in the boggy Maine wilderness, his feet got soaked. He tried out different pairs of boots, but the result was the same each time. So finally, he decided to do something about it.

The 40-year-old Bean, who left school after the eighth grade, was a career journeyman. He’d worked at a local creamery, sold soap door-to-door, and after his brother Otho opened a dry goods store, L.L. managed it. But Bean had never sewn a stitch in his life, and had zero experience making shoes. So he paid a local cobbler to make a special boot that attached a leather ankle support onto the hard rubber bottoms of galoshes. Bean called his creation the Maine Hunting Shoe.

The boot’s combination of a sturdy base with a lighter support structure was perfect for hunters who needed to walk long distances through adverse conditions. And it was a pretty novel concept for the early 1900s. After completing a successful hunting trip in them, Bean ordered 100 pairs of Maine Hunting Shoes.

To sell the shoes, he drafted an advertising flyer positioning himself as an expert outfitter:

Outside of your gun, nothing is so important to your outfit as your footwear. You cannot expect success hunting deer or moose if your feet are not properly dressed. The Maine Hunting Shoe is designed by a hunter who has tramped the Maine woods for the past 18 years. They are light as a pair of moccasins with the protection of heavy hunting boots.

Bean’s next step was a stroke of genius that, in hindsight, predicted his future success. Gathering all the names and addresses of Maine hunting license holders, he sent his flyer to those residing out of state. His thinking: These individuals were more likely to be novices in need of expert advice. In no time, he sold his first 100 pairs.

From a 1943 catalog, via eBay

Bean’s brilliant marketing would quickly sour, however, when the leather and rubber components of the boots began to come apart. One by one, customers sent their busted-up Maine Hunting Shoes back to him seeking a refund. The final tally was 90 out of the 100 pairs—a devastating failure rate for a new venture with limited resources.

Unbowed, Bean refunded everyone’s money, borrowed $400, traveled to Boston and met with representatives from the United States Rubber Company, who supplied him with new bottoms that would hold the stitching better. After returning to Maine, Bean manufactured the updated boots and sent pairs to the previously dissatisfied customers, free of charge. They were delighted.

This focus on service and quality, supported by a money-back guarantee, would become the backbone of L.L. Bean, the company. This sounds like PR boilerplate, but back in 1912 things like product safety and reliability were far from guaranteed—and it paid dividends for the tiny outfitter from Freeport. As word of mouth grew, L.L. Bean gained more customers, many of whom wrote to request the new and improved Maine Hunting Shoe. Bean sent out the orders, and made sure to slip in a brochure filled with folksy pitches he’d written for his growing lineup of products, which included zippered duffel bags, chamois shirts, moccasins, and fishing lures.

In addition to reliable products, L.L. Bean got a boost from the expanding U.S. Postal Service, which started its parcel service in the early 1900s. In 1917, Bean built a factory and shipment center over the town’s post office. With the help of another brother, Guy, who was the local postmaster, he built a system of chutes and elevators that quickly routed order slips and packages. As these deliveries sped across the northeast and throughout the country, the name L.L. Bean became synonymous with outdoor adventure.

From a 1930 catalog, via eBay

Bean also benefited from the growing number of automobile owners, many of whom began driving up to Maine for fishing trips and family outings. They’d make a special stop at the L.L. Bean showroom, positioned next door to the factory, where they’d often find the company’s affable founder eager to outfit them for their trip.

A few key endorsements fueled further growth for the company: The MacMillan Arctic Expedition of 1925 used its boots, and celebrities like Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth were frequent customers. In time, names like Franklin Roosevelt, John Wayne, and Ernest Hemingway would sing the company’s praises. But it was L.L. Bean the man who figured most prominently into the company’s early success. According to numerous accounts, Bean was a born salesman who excelled at building relationships with his customers. He had his hands in every aspect of the business, too. He tested every product himself, often taking long lunch breaks to hike and fish using the latest gear. He also controlled everything from the company’s merchandising to ordering to the designing and writing of the company’s seasonal catalogs.

The L.L. Bean catalog, which began as a simple four-page flyer, quickly grew into a 51-page guide stuffed with clothing, shoes, sporting goods, and home furnishings. Not only did it showcase the products for sale, it conveyed the personality of the company, embodied by Bean himself. "It is no longer necessary for you to experiment with dozens of flies to determine the few that will catch fish," he wrote in a 1927 catalog. "We have done that experimenting for you." Friendly, helpful, and a little eccentric, the catalogs made people feel like they were buying from a lovable, excitable uncle rather than a company.

Fall 1943 catalog, via eBay

That lovable uncle, though, was also a savvy businessman who relished his role at the top. In his book L.L. Bean: The Making of An American Icon, Leon Gorman, L.L.’s grandson and former head of the company, recalled one executive flourish Bean put on display in the Freeport store:

"I was always struck that, near the cashier station in the retail store, L.L. had put up a big formal portrait of himself in a pin-striped suit. It was incongruous among all the snowshoes, fishing and hunting gear, and other outdoors paraphernalia—certainly not the image people had of this country uncle running a little catalog operation up in the woods of Maine."

Customer loyalty kept L.L. Bean thriving through the Depression. By 1937, the company had reached more than $1 million in annual sales. Its mail-order service expanded as the catalog grew in size. Now customers could buy everything from business shirts and barn jackets to pocket knives and swivel-head duck decoys. In 1942, L.L. traveled to Washington, where he advised military leaders on cold-weather outfits for troops. The company would end up supplying special boots known as "shoepacs" to the war effort. By the 1950s, L.L. Bean had become a household name.

For years, the company enjoyed sales growth of 25 percent and higher. By 1960, however, that growth had slowed considerably. The competition had caught up to L.L. Bean’s pricing and product quality. And the expansion of retail stores across the country offered a more hands-on buying experience for consumers. Bean, who by this time was approaching 90 years old and was still running the company, was behind the times when it came to manufacturing and marketing, too. His Freeport factory was a tangle of inefficiencies, and relied on an aging, part-time work force that wasn’t keeping up with order volume. In an era when print and television advertising was rapidly evolving, L.L. Bean could no longer rely on the hard work and folksy appeal of its founder to move product.

Bean would stay on as the company head until his death in 1967, at the age of 94. At that time, Gorman, a Bowdoin graduate and Naval Reservist who Bean hired in 1961 as treasurer, took over, becoming only the second person to lead a business that was more than 50 years old.

The company eventually caught up with the times. Gorman increased L.L. Bean’s advertising budget, made its pricing more competitive, streamlined its factory operations, and expanded retail locations throughout the northeast. But it also kept much of the original DNA that gave the L.L. Bean its identity, like the catalog and the Freeport outlet, which features a giant statue of Bean’s famous Maine Hunting Shoe (size 451).

For a company that prides itself on extreme customer service, they have one advantage many other companies can't claim: The Freeport outlet stays open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and never locks its doors. This practice hails back to 1951, when Bean, after years of agreeably waking up in the wee hours to outfit hunters and fishermen (the store’s doorbell had a sign over it that read, "Ring once a minute until clerk appears"), decided to keep the outlet open all hours.

Over the past 65 years, the Freeport store has remained constantly open, with one exception: February 5, 1967, the day of L.L. Bean’s funeral.

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The Top Excuses Employees Give for Being Late to Work
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Expecting staff to just get out of bed and show up on time seems like a low bar for an employer to set, but some workers have trouble meeting this bare-minimum obligation. Their stated reasons can almost sound believable.

Job placement site CareerBuilder.com recently conducted a survey and asked 800 respondents in various age brackets how often they were late for work, as well as over 1000 human resource managers for data on missing workers. Overall, one in four employees admitted to being tardy at least once a month. Those aged 18 to 34 were the most frequently late, with 38 percent clocking in past their expected arrival. Only 14 percent of workers 45 and older were less-than-punctual.

As for excuses: 51 percent said traffic was the most common reason they straggled in. Around 31 percent said oversleeping was an issue, while bad weather (28 percent) and forgetting something and having to return home (13 percent) plagued others.

According to human resources managers, some workers claimed that they were late because their coffee was too hot; that they fell asleep in the parking lot; that it was too cold outside to travel; or that their false eyelashes were stuck together.

Not surprisingly, CareerBuilder also found that 88 percent of workers were in favor of a flexible work schedule.

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14 Secrets of Costco Employees
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Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Costco has become something of a unicorn in the brick-and-mortar industry. While employees at other chains express concerns over low wages and questionable management choices, the 200,000-plus ground troops at Costco’s massive shopping centers rave about generous pay ($13 to $22.50 hourly, depending on seniority), comprehensive benefits, and pension plans. After one year of employment, the turnover rate is only 6 percent, compared to an average of 16 percent across the retail industry. Not having to incur costs of training replacements is just one reason the company keeps prices low.

It’s no secret that Costco employees are a relatively happy bunch. But we wanted a little more information, so we’ve asked several current Costco workers about everything from pet peeves to nail polish bans to revoking memberships. (All requested we use only their first names to preserve anonymity.) Here’s what they had to tell us about life in the pallets.

1. WORKING THERE IS BETTER THAN GOING TO THE GYM.

Turns out that navigating a warehouse full of goods stacked to the ceiling is kind of like getting an all-day gym pass. “I walk about five to eight miles a day on average, and that's all within the confines of the store,” says Rachael, a Costco employee in Colorado. “When you see pallets stacked with 50-pound bags of flour or sugar or dog food or cat litter, a lot of that stuff had to be stacked by hand by employees before the store opens. Ditto for those giant stacks of shoes and bottles of salsa or five-gallon jugs of cooking oil. It's a lot of hard work.”

2. THEY CAN DO THEIR SHOPPING AFTER HOURS.

Costco shopping carts are arranged together
Brendan Smialowski, Getty Images

While employees typically don’t get shopping discounts, they have something that’s arguably better: the opportunity to shop in a near-empty store. “You can shop after hours, and a lot of employees do that,” says Kathleen, a Costco employee in Washington state. “You just bring your cart to the front register.” The store will keep the member service counter open so workers can check out after other registers have closed.

3. THE GENEROUS RETURN POLICY CAN GET MESSY.

Costco infamously places very few restrictions on returns. Most anything purchased there can be brought back for a refund as part of the company’s overall emphasis on exceptional customer service. Naturally, some members are willing to abuse the privilege. “Members return couches that are over five years old, and interestingly enough, they still have the receipt,” Rachael says. “My guess is that they buy that couch with the intention of returning it someday, so they tape the receipt to the bottom of the couch so they don't lose it. Then, when they've worn it out and want something new, they bring it back and get a full refund.”

Rachael has also seen a member return a freezer that was allegedly no longer working. The store refunded both the cost of the appliance and the spoiled meat inside. “The meat smelled like death,” she says.

4. THEY CAN ALSO TELL WHEN YOU’RE A SERIAL RETURNER.

A shopper at Costco looks at the computer display
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Costco purchase records typically date back 10 years or so, but employees working the return counter don’t always need to reference your account to know that you're making a habit of getting refunds. “When someone comes in to return something without a receipt and they go, ‘Oh, you can look it up on my account,’ that’s a tell,” says Thomas, an employee in California. “It tells me you return so much stuff that you know what we can find on the computer.”

5. THERE’S A CONVENIENCE STORE-WITHIN-A-STORE.

While employees are generally allowed to eat their lunch or dinner meals in the food court, not all of them are crazy about pizza and hot dogs as part of their daily diet. Many opt for the employee break room, which—in some warehouse locations—looks more like a highway rest stop. Rows of vending machines offer fresh meals, snacks, and sodas, along with a complete kitchen for preparing food brought from home. “[It’s a] relatively new addition that is being implemented at more warehouses,” says Steve, an employee in California. “It's basically like a gas station's convenience store, with both frozen and fresh meals and snacks. The only difference is the prices are more reasonable.”

6. THERE’S A GOOD REASON THERE ISN’T AN EXPRESS CHECKOUT LANE.

A Costco shopper goes through the checkout lane
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Walk into a Costco and you’ll probably notice an employee with a click counter taking inventory of incoming members. According to Rachael, that head count gets relayed to the supervisor in charge of opening registers. “They know that for a certain amount of people entering the store, within a certain amount of time, there should be a certain amount of registers open to accommodate those shoppers who are ready to check out,” she says. If there aren’t enough cashiers on hand, the supervisor can pull from other departments: Most employees are “cross-trained” to help out when areas are understaffed.

7. THERE’S A METHOD TO THE RECEIPT CHECK.

Customers sometimes feel offended when they’re met at the exit by an employee scanning their receipt, but it’s all in an effort to mitigate loss prevention and keep prices low. “We’re looking for items on the bottom of the cart, big items like TVs, or alcohol,” Thomas says. Typically, the value of these items might make it worth the risk for a customer who's trying to shoplift—and they're worth the double-check.

8. THEY TAKE SAFE FOOD HANDLING TO A NEW LEVEL ...

A Costco employee works in food preparation
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

At Costco, employees are expected to exercise extreme caution when preparing and serving hot dogs, pizza, chicken and other food to members. “If an employee forgets to remove their apron before exiting the department, they must remove that apron, toss it into the hamper, and put on a fresh apron because now it's contaminated,” Rachael says. “Or, let's say a member asks for a slice of cheese pizza. We place that piece onto a plate, with tongs, of course, then place the plate onto the counter. If the member says, ‘Oh darn, I've changed my mind, I'd rather have pepperoni pizza,’ then we have to toss the pizza that they didn't want into the trash. Once it hits the counter, it can't come back.” Some store protocols even prohibit employees from wearing nail polish in food prep areas—it could chip and get into the food.

9. ... BUT WORKING AT THE FOOD COURT CAN PREPARE THEM FOR ANYTHING.

Costco employees who find themselves behind the counter at the chain’s food court say it's one of the few less-than-pleasant experiences of working there. For some members, the dynamic of waiting on food and peering over a service counter can make them forget their manners. “Usually members are rude when they are waiting on their pizza during a busy time,” Steve says. “If an employee can excel in the food court, any other position in the warehouse is pretty easy by comparison.”

10. THEY GET FREE TURKEYS.

Costco’s generous wages and benefits keep employment applications stacked high. What people don’t realize, Kathleen says, is that the company’s attention to employee satisfaction can result in getting gifted a giant bird. “We get free turkeys for Thanksgiving,” she says. “I didn’t even know that before I started working there. It’s a nice perk.”

11. THEY CAN REVOKE YOUR MEMBERSHIP.

Shoppers go down an aisle at Costco
Gabriel Buoys, AFP/Getty Images

But it’s got to be a pretty extreme situation. According to Thomas, memberships can be terminated if a member is caught stealing or having a physical altercation inside the store. For less severe infractions, employees can make notes under a “comments” section of your membership. They’ll do that for frequent returns, if you’re verbally aggressive, or if you like to rummage through pre-packaged produce looking for the best apples. (Don’t do that.)

12. MANAGERS GET THEIR HANDS DIRTY.

During peak business times on weekends and around holidays, the influx of customer traffic can get so formidable that managers jump in with employees to make sure everything gets taken care of. “Most people would be surprised if they realized that the person who just put all of their groceries into their cart at the registers or who helped load that huge mattress into their car was actually the store's general manager,” Rachael says.

13. EVERY DAILY STORE OPENING IS CONTROLLED CHAOS …

Shoppers appear in front of a Costco store
Scott Olsen, Getty Images

Like most any retail store, Costco prides itself on presenting a clean, efficient, and organized layout that holds little trace of the labor that went into overnight stocking or display preparation. But if a customer ever happened to see the store in the last hour before opening each day, they’d witness a flurry of activity. “It's controlled chaos with loud music along with the blaring of the forklift sirens,” Steve says. “Employees are rushing to finish and clean up, drivers are rushing to put merchandising in the steel [shelving], and the floor scrubber slowly but surely makes its way around the warehouse. It truly is a remarkable choreography that happens seven days a week.”

14. … AND EVERY CLOSING IS A SLOW MARCH.

To avoid stragglers, Costco employees form a line and walk down aisles to encourage customers to move toward the front of the store so they can check out before closing. Once the doors are locked, overnight stocking begins in anticipation of another day at the world’s coziest warehouse. “Our store has over 250 employees altogether,” Rachael says. “If all of us do our little bit, then it's a well-oiled machine that runs without a hitch.”

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