The Brunswick, Maine, business has been making and selling its iconic Bean Boots for more than a century sans any serious supply issues, even at the height of preppy fashion. The hand-stitched waterproof boots are known to be so sturdy and reliable, they’re casually defined as “a loyal companion.”
Since 2011, however, when the company’s “duck boots” became a full-on fashion statement and were spotted on city-dwelling celebrities more often than UGGs, L.L. Bean has had a hard time keeping pace with an upturn in demand.
The company counted 100,000 back-ordered pairs of Bean Boots last holiday season. In 2014 L.L. Bean sold about 450,000 pairs of the boots and anticipates selling 500,000 or more by the end of 2015. Bean Boots retail for between $69.99 and $299.
Scarce Skilled Talent Tripping Up L.L. Bean
L.L. Bean attributes its inability to keep up with orders to a decision it made years ago to retain domestic production of the footwear that has served as its foundation. Specializing in making and marketing apparel and outdoor equipment, the company pushed to preserve its brand by continuing to craft the boot in America using locally sourced materials and tapping area talent for assembly and sewing.
The business’ choice to make the duck boot domestically is now restricting its revenue growth in the nation’s $2 billion footwear manufacturing industry. Though L.L. Bean has tripled its boot production during the past decade, the company is struggling to keep up with demand, mostly because its ranks of skilled tradespeople have run slim.
Rather than moving Bean Boots manufacturing to China, where it’s estimated that 90% of the world’s shoes are made, L.L. Bean produces its popular boots at a 170,000-sq.-ft. factory in Maine — one of the top states for shoe manufacturing in the US alongside California, according to First Research.
The Bean Boot’s chain-tread rubber bottom is created with the help of an injection-molding machine and the handiwork of hundreds of employees working across three shifts. L.L. Bean recently invested $1 million to add a second machine in mid-2015 to make rubber bottoms faster. Altogether, a pair of Bean Boots is born after workers’ 85 minutes of labor.
Coveted Millennial Customers Crave Quality Craftsmanship
For its functionality and quality craftsmanship, the Bean Boot is attracting an important consumer crowd — millennials. Whether they’re downtrodden with debt or among the lucky few who are already affluent, this highly discerning generation values heritage brands and will pay for a product that aligns with their ideals.
As this huge consumer group, which according to the US Census eclipsed Baby Boomers midyear with a population of 83.1 million, seeks which shoes to covet, L.L. Bean will be well-positioned as a conscientious American manufacturer that’s sticking to what it knows best.
Despite advances in automation, shoes are still largely assembled by hand, using cutting, gluing, and stitching machinery. According to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, about 98% of all footwear sold in the US is imported. Major export markets for US footwear include Canada, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, the UK, and the United Arab Emirates.
Resigning to maintain domestic production of its flagship footwear, L.L. Bean has grown accustomed in recent years to having demand outstrip supply. It’s a nice problem and a marketing dream. But the company is leaving money on the table while sales of its boots are delayed and frustrated customers turn to less heritage-heavy styles to outfit themselves for winter.
L.L. Bean has been unable to quickly scale up boot production because fewer industry workers are trained in stitching. It doesn’t help that the company’s stitching training takes six months to complete.
As long as consumers continue to buzz about the Bean Boot and paparazzi snap celebrities scuffing around town in the footwear, L.L. Bean will enjoy the increased demand for its waterproof boot.
What should be tempering the company’s enthusiasm, though, is knowing that fellow footwear producers like Timberland, Tommy Hilfiger, Crocs, Madden, Polo Ralph Lauren, and others are on L.L. Bean’s heels and are producing me-too knockoffs at a faster clip.
Industry Impact — Footwear manufacturers that specialize in handcrafted items must focus on maintaining skilled tradespeople to keep up with production demands or risk threats from more nimble competitors.
Tracking the moves of consumer products makers since 2003, Colbert is an industry editor and blogger. Before covering companies and industries, she spent ample time in magazine publishing, technical writing, ad copywriting, medical writing, and marketing. Follow her on Twitter.