Has L.L. Bean Become Cabela’s Lite?

L.L. Bean Store Design In-Store Experience Callison
The L.L. Bean in-store experience

In the last 10 years, L.L. Bean has rolled out a series of retail stores around the country.  On the walls, they posted enlarged catalog covers that loom over shoppers and remind them that this classic American brand has been around for a century (11 years longer than the Walt Disney Company). They hung brightly colored kayaks from the ceiling and masked the I-beam supports with cheap unstained wood, mimicking the look of a summer scout camp. Sort of.

Though the L.L. Bean company is larger than Cabela’s and has been around twice as long, they feel to me like “Cabela’s Lite” because the spectacle they’ve produced is hollow and inauthentic. Here is where L.L. Bean’s extravagant in-store experience fails to convince me:

They make products for yuppies, not sportsmen.

The Maine Outdoorsman writes “I can guarantee you that if anyone ever shows up at deer camp wearing 95% of the clothing depicted in this catalog, they will be shot on sight.”  This is not a transgression on its face. L.L. Bean caters to a less rugged customer than Cabela’s does, but the products and the in-store experience don’t sync. What story are they trying to tell me with these nostalgic props? Either L.L. Bean is a has-been who lost its way but remembers better days, or it’s an imposter, no more connected than Old Navy to the real American outdoorsman.

They play it safe.

L.L. Bean is frightened to offend those who’d object to trophy hunting*. Meanwhile, Cabela’s decks the walls with stuffed bobcats and mule deer and if you don’t like it, leave the store. Also, Cabela’s stocks its stores with employees eager to get you geared up for your caribou hunt in Alberta. L.L. Bean’s employees worked at H&M last month. I’ve combed through the relevant forums and opinion columns as I researched for this blog post, and serious hunters, fishers, and trekkers consistently reject L.L. Bean. I can’t imagine why a serious outdoorsman would choose L.L. Bean when REI, Bass Pro Shops, Kathmandu, and Cabela’s understand them so much better. For not-so-serious outdoorsmen, a slew of designers makes clothes that are more fashionable, more affordable, or both.

The Cabela's in-store experience
The Cabela’s in-store experience

How can L.L. Bean save its soul?

The L.L. Bean stores should not try to look like Cabela’s stores. However, the company should take one lesson from its competitor.

Through its in-store and online experiences, L.L. Bean needs to convey passion for some cause. Without this passion, the company more resembles Dell than Apple. They don’t love hunting and fishing as Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops do, they don’t love mountaineering as REI does, and they don’t love the energy and freedom of youth as American Eagle and Ralph Lauren do. They don’t conspicuously love anything . . . except post-sale customer service, and that doesn’t usually get the blood racing for an under-35 crowd. So what could they love? How could they connect with and inspire Americans?

Suppose L.L. Bean stores were shrines not to all wilderness (as REI and Cabela’s try to be), but to only Maine’s wilderness. Maine trailblazing used to be the soul of this huge, convoluted organization. L.L. Bean’s brand managers should bring Maine’s forests to customers as vividly as Pixar brought Scotland’s forests to audiences, showing them a world of mystery and wonder.  I envision free-standing display cases that line the store’s walking paths. Inside the museum-grade displays, mushrooms, ferns, and stuffed snakes and insects teach shoppers in Illinois and Japan about the flora and fauna of Baxter State Park (that’s the heart of Maine’s wilderness and the start of the Appalachian trail).

Its in-store experience needs not match Cabela’s theatricality. L.L. Bean just must tell a noble, honest story about its brand, and that story is, “We want to share our love of Maine’s wilderness with you.”

I think an in-store experience like this would drive long-term strategic value for the brand. It’s authentic and inspiring. It brings you into L.L. Bean’s world and shows off a passion for Maine’s wilderness.
I think an in-store experience like this would drive long-term strategic value for the brand. It’s authentic and inspiring. It brings you into L.L. Bean’s world and broadcasts a passion for Maine’s wilderness.

L.L. Bean should refer to National Geographic Stores. These broadcast a love for nature, world cultures, adventure, and exploration with absolute congruence throughout the organization. You don’t need to enter the store as a lover of Nepal to catch Nat Geo’s enthusiasm for Nepalese monks and geology. Likewise, a Maine-centric rebrand for L.L. Bean would spark brand-love in shoppers who don’t have ties to Maine. It would humanize the brand.

Love of Maine does seem to surge through the organization. L.L. Bean pushed $1.5 M towards these Maine-based organizations last year, including Portland, Maine’s schools and statewide wildlife foundations. The company’s C-suite may privately support the Boy Scouts of America, Yellowstone National Park, or coalitions to fight global warming, but none of these worthy causes can align with the L.L. Bean brand so perfectly as Maine wildlife organizations do.

In the future, I’d like to see L.L. Bean persuade some of its Conservation Partners like the Appalachian Mountain Club to supply props and promotional materials to stores throughout the country. The company would do so to ostensibly “convert casual shoppers into conservation partners.” L.L. Bean could pay to install new trail signs in Baxter SP, and then they could mount the old trail signs, those which they replaced, in their Pennsylvania or New Jersey stores.

A transmedia agency like Campfire could light L.L. Bean’s way as they empower fans to create “Go Outside: See Maine” multimedia, which would air under the L.L. Bean banner. (See Campfire’s work for Harley Davidson.)

Also, in exchange for donations, the company could use its conservation partners as sources from which to recruit wilderness experts who lead scheduled talks in the store. The company could even provide exclusive outdoor education opportunities for employees, which might attract (and cultivate) a higher quality of employee, resulting in more attentive, enthusiastic, and informed customer service.

To survive, L.L. Bean needs to get off the fence and take risks. The company must show its passion to customers, especially those under 35. Perception is more important than reality, and getting twenty-something shoppers in Illinois jazzed about rural Maine might take some theatrics. Until this change occurs, a dozen competitor brands are well-positioned to impinge on L.L. Bean’s market share.

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*The flagship store in Freeport, ME is an exception to this point and several others.

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Has L.L. Bean Become Cabela’s Lite?