L.L. Bean is expanding from its original model of direct-to-customer catalog sales and in-stores sales with an agreement to sell products in Nordstrom, Staples and sporting goods chain SCHEELS.
The company's first wholesale agreements in the U.S. represent a push to get L.L. Bean products in front of more consumers.
The Maine-based retailer believes its products are underrepresented in the marketplace and that there's an opportunity to expand while other retailers contract, said Charlie Bruder, vice president for merchandising.
The first phase started with L.L. Bean backpacks and water bottles that went on sale in more than 1,000 Staples stores two weeks ago. The business products retailer is a leader for back-to-school shopping.
In the fall, L.L. Bean gear will be sold in a half-dozen SCHEELS stores in the Midwest and in 20 Nordstrom stores across the U.S.
Nordstrom will offer classics like the famous Bean Boot, fleece and flannel, both in the stores, and online.
It's a smart strategy for retailers like L.L. Bean to reach more consumers without the risks that go along with opening new stores and signing long leases, said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at The NPD Group.
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The trend is expected to continue, Cohen said. "When you select the right retail partners, it gives you the ability to bring the product to the people" without being a sellout, he said.
The move is not unprecedented for the 108-year-old retailer: L.L. Bean inked an agreement in 2018 to sell products in Sporting Life, Hudson's Bay and Mountain Equipment Co-Op stores in Canada. The company also reached an agreement three years ago to expand sales in Japan beyond company-branded stores.
L.L.Bean has dealt with flat sales and a difficult era of belt-tightening that included a previous reduction in workforce, a tightening of its generous return policy, and a paring of product lines. Sales dipped 3% last year to about $1.5 billion for the privately-owned company.
During the pandemic, L.L. Bean closed its stores temporarily but its online and catalog sales thrived with strong sales of comfort items like slippers in March, outdoor furniture and hammocks in April, and bikes, kayaks and canoes in May, said spokesperson Amanda Hannah.
The company believes that it can win over customers for life, if it can just get them to try the products, Bruder said. The key was finding a handful of retailers who share the company's customer service philosophy. Nordstrom, which is family-owned, and SCHEELS, which is employee-owned, are known for their customer service, he said.
Despite online sales growth, most retail sales in the U.S. are still made in bricks and mortar stores, he added.
L.L. Bean remains committed to its own stores, as well, and will press forward with opening stores in select markets.
"When people come into our stores, our staff is incredible. There's no substitute for that," Bruder said. "We want to continue to have a thoughtful expansion plan."