There are few places I’d rather be in December than right here in Maine.
Our seacoast town gets duded up like Santa’s workshop, with pine boughs and ribbons wrapped around every lamppost, shop window and door frame. Dock Square boasts a towering fir tree lit with twinkling lights that illuminate the red and green lobster buoy ornaments. Grey skies and nippy weather hint at the possibility of snow. And then there’s the proximity to L.L.Bean, the world’s greatest department store.
If you’ve never had a chance to roam the aisles of this 100-plus-years-old, 200,000 square-foot flagship store in Freeport, with annual sales of $1.6 billion, come on up. Bean draws close to three million visitors each year. I cannot remember a guest at my house who hasn’t put L.L.Bean on their itinerary. Some go to buy the signature tote bags, others just to eyeball the indoor trout pond.
Bean is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — and there are no locks on any of the doors. Since 1951, the only time Bean closed was John F. Kennedy’s assassination and founder L.L. Bean’s death.
Prompting this “open door” policy, apparently, was that Mr. Leon Leonwood Bean had been roused from his sleep too many times with nocturnal visitors ringing the night bell on their way upstate to hunt and fish. He obliged.
Outside Bean’s main entrance stands a 16-foot high model of the iconic brown and tan rubber-bottomed Maine hunting boot. It’s actually a size 410, and represents the first product the entrepreneurial founder produced. Interestingly, nearly 90% of the first boots he made turned out to be defective. Mr. Bean repaired and replaced them free of charge, thereby initiating the "legendary guarantee" the company still honors today.
One story epitomizing Bean’s customer service involves Ed Dwyer, a former sales rep. In the 1970s he sold a camping stove to a woman about to leave for a tour of Ireland. After she left, Dwyer realized the woman might have trouble finding the proper fuel for the stove in Ireland. He went to the cashier and discovered the lady had paid by a check that listed her hometown in Vermont.
He happened to have the next day off so he drove to Vermont, inquired at the general store and was given directions to her home. Once there, he exchanged stoves and taught her how to use the new one. Several weeks later, Mr. Dwyer began receiving post cards from Ireland.
“A lot of people have fancy things to say about customer service,” Leon Gorman, son of the founder, said. “But it’s just a day-in, day-out, ongoing, never-ending, persevering, compassionate kind of activity.”
Personal proof: the zipper on my son’s blue nylon backpack crumped out after eight years of hard duty in elementary school. When I went to see if the zipper could be repaired, Bean insisted I get a new back pack. Free.
During the Christmas season the normal sales force of 5000 doubles. The green-shirted staff are not only savvy, they are personable and helpful. Looking for a fleece with a 12” zipper? “Right here.” Need waterproof shoes. “We have several choices.”
Bean’s online business (llbean.com) is among the top-rated e-commerce sites in the industry, and offers free shipping to the United States and Canada with no minimum purchase and no end date. This continues the tradition L.L. started back in 1912 by offering all products in his catalog “postpaid.”
This Maine treasure is worth a trip or a phone call or a browse through its web site. And I’m not even on the payroll.