business news in context, analysis with attitude

In Maine, the Portland Press Herald reports on “ L.L. Bean’s thriving, 26-year engagement with Japan, one of the world’s most challenging retail markets, with high rents and wages, notoriously discerning customers and fashion trends that cycle at a breakneck and often unpredictable pace. By good fortune, timely investments, and an unexpected cultural synergy between outdoorsy, practical Maine and nature-and-tradition loving Japan, the Freeport-based retailer has ridden out booms and busts to embed itself in the world’s third-largest economy.”

Japan, as it happens, is “the only foreign country where L.L. Bean has stores, and it’s home to more than a third of all the stores the company has on the planet. (It announced Oct. 31 that it will allow a Toronto company to own and operate LL Bean-branded stores in Canada starting next year.) The stores – relatively small and typically located in city centers – have slowly spread across much of the country, even as competitors like Seattle-based REI have seen setbacks. Online orders are growing, too, accounting for about half of sales here, prompting an ongoing upgrade of the software and technology that support it.”
KC's View:
There were a couple of things that intrigued me about this story.

One was how LL Bean’s then-partners, when the Japanese economy was going south, wanted them to reposition the brand as being a low-price competitor. But the company decided instead to dissolve the partnership in 2001, and then “created its own company, and proceeded to open its own, wholly owned stores, emphasizing the company’s heritage, durable products and commitment to customer service … The company took a careful approach, opting for smaller stores – some are as little as 400 square feet – in prominent urban and suburban shopping districts that also helped customers order additional items from the catalog.”

The other is how LL Bean got to Japan in the first place … it was the very essence of a grassroots operation, as people there demanded its products before it ever had a presence there. The Japanese culture, as it happened, had a real appreciation for “practical beauty,” and LL Bean products filled the bill.

LL Bean remains a classic case study in how to be specific in creating brand equity, focus on value without being price oriented, and how to navigate a changing retail climate. Smart people, smart company.