Outdoor retailer L.L. Bean is rethinking its liberal return and free shipping policies as well as looking for other ways to cut costs and revive the company's prospects for growth, the Associated Press reports.
Immediate cost-cutting measures include freezing pensions, a voluntary retirement program and scaling back some employee benefits.
Some of L.L. Bean's moves were being implemented or considered before the arrival of CEO Stephen Smith (the first chief executive to be brought into the position from outside the company) in 2015. A request to L.L. Bean from Retail Dive for comment was not immediately returned.
L.L. Bean is privately held, so it isn’t under quite the same pressure for growth and profits as retailers whose shares trade on Wall Street. But Smith told the Associated Press that the company is working to get back to previous growth levels for the sake of its private shareholders (among them Linda Bean, a granddaughter and heir to founder Leon Leonwood Bean, who recently shook up its warmly outdoorsy brand with her outspoken support of President Donald Trump and her talk-show-circuit slams of his critics).
That desire to drive growth has L.L. Bean contemplating major internal changes that could also impact its brand, including revoking the return and shipping policies that have given the company a glow of friendly customer service. Businesses like L.L. Bean and Nordstrom enjoy reputations for customer service that place them at the top of surveys year after year, and in fact, some retailers contend that liberal return policies and free shipping/free returns have stronger marketing implications than their supply chain efforts do.
About half of all retailers now offer free online returns, despite increases in shipping costs. That's because free returns, like free shipping, is a way to compete with brick-and-mortar retailers, which are able to take returns in store, in some cases even for online orders. Research shows that e-retailers with liberal free return policies please their customers greatly — so much so that their customers are, in turn, twice as likely to shop through their sites and are also willing to spend more. Retailers who make returns cheap and easy are giving consumers an intangible that they value: The elimination of a layer of risk in completing their online purchase.
But, of course, the costs of e-commerce are weighing heavily on brick-and-mortar retailers, who have successfully increased digital sales but thinned their margins in the process, according to a study from retail strategy firm HRC Advisory. “[S]elling on the internet is not efficient,” Nick Egelanian, president of retail development consultants SiteWorks International, told Retail Dive earlier this year. “The whole methodology of selling on the internet is completely foreign to what it’s like selling” at a store.
L.L. Bean, however, has long been a direct-to-consumer retailer: For decades the overwhelming majority of its sales have come from its catalog business and not its brick-and-mortar operations, which are relatively small. The company has a sprawling retail enterprise in its hometown of Freeport, ME but runs just 27 retail stores outside of Maine, as well as 10 outlets, according to its website.
Bean’s bigger problem may be that its customer base is aging and that it faces marketing and merchandising issues similar to fellow apparel brand Lands’ End. Both sell classic casual clothing and outdoor gear basics, and enjoy devout loyalty from their biggest fans. But outside of its best-selling Bean boot, L.L. Bean isn’t wowing younger shoppers, and neither is Lands' End, which this week announced an impairment of the Lands' End trade name to the tune of an estimated $170 million to $180 million, reducing the value of the asset from $430 million to between $250 million and $260 million. That struggling apparel retailer also said that it expects to write down some $2.3 million of merchandise from its Canvas line — an initiative revived by former CEO Federica Marchionni last spring in an effort to attract a more youthful demographic.
There was no discussion in the AP report of efforts by L.L. Bean to similarly revamp its merchandise.