Down East goes Far East as L. L. Bean gets set to open its first store overseas

March 24, 1992|By Colin Nickerson | Colin Nickerson,Boston Globe

TOKYO -- Chrysler chief executive Lee A. Iacocca might bluster and fume about trade barriers, but to Leon Gorman, president of L. L. Bean Inc., Japan looks like Easy Street.

"We are not so much pushing our way into this market as being pulled," says Mr. Gorman, whose outdoors outfitting company made its hometown of Freeport, Maine, famous.

This month, Mr. Gorman linked up in a joint venture with two giant Japanese companies, Seiyu Ltd. and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., that will open the first L. L. Bean retail store in Tokyo later this year. The outlet also will be L. L. Bean's first on foreign soil.

But the Beaning of Japan has been under way for at least a decade.

L. L. Bean's "open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year" retail operation in Freeport has long been a favorite stop for Japanese traipsing New England's tourist trail. Tales of this wonderland of durable, upscale merchandise spread back across the Pacific not only by word of mouth but through the news media.

For Japanese correspondents in the United States, L. L. Bean's folksy corporate image is an irresistible journalistic lure. Dozens of Japanese magazine articles and newspaper features have recounted how the late Leon Leonwood Bean founded the company in 1912 with a single product -- the rugged, if clunky, rubber-bottomed Original Maine Hunting Shoe, still one of the company's hottest items -- then transformed the company into a mammoth mail-order and retail business with fiscal 1991 sales of million.

One result: Without a nickel spent on advertising in Japan, L. L. Bean is already doing $14 million worth of mail-order business with Japanese who apparently cannot resist that Down East look.

"With no marketing at all, we have about 130,000 Japanese customers on our catalog list," says Mr. Gorman, the grandson of L. L. Bean, as he douses jet lag with coffee at Tokyo's Akasaka Prince Hotel. "But with 125 million Japanese, we haven't really scratched the surface."

Given the Japanese predilection for both high-quality brand dTC names and the "American look," the opening of the first Bean store in Tokyo seems less a gamble than a bet that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. Its Japanese partners estimate the outlet will generate $3.9 million in sales during its first year.

"Japanese have a fascination with the great American outdoors, and L. L. Bean's name is already quite famous in Japan," says Akihiro Tanii, a spokesman for Matsushita, the world's largest maker of consumer electronics. "The Japanese lifestyle is changing, with more leisure time, and the Bean's image suggests nature and adventure."

Mr. Tanii's assertion that the Japanese are relaxing more is debatable. This society is far from being weaned from its workaholic ways. What is not debatable, however, is that when hard-working Japanese do relax, they want to dress the part.

For instance, many of the tens of thousands who "hike" the gentle, paved trails of Mount Takao every Sunday go garbed as if setting off on an Everest trek, not a weekend stroll. Backpacks, heavy-duty hiking boots, windproof jackets and even, inexplicably, compasses abound on the well-marked foot paths at the popular getaway spot 45 minutes by train from Tokyo.

It is not difficult to imagine that L. L. Bean's trademark chamois-cloth shirts, Maine Warden's parkas, Pathfinder pants and other garb would hold enormous appeal for this hardy crowd.

Indeed, Mr. Tanii says sales of outdoor wear in Japan are expected to grow 80 percent in the next five years, to more than $3 billion a year.

Since L. L. Bean's goods will be imported, and since 80 percent of its products are made in the United States, "this joint venture might even ease trade friction just a bit," Mr. Tanii says.

If the first Tokyo store is a hit, four more L. L. Bean outlets will open in Japan in the next few years. And Bean officials are confident that retail sales will not conflict with the company's booming mail-order busi

ness with Japan.

"One won't cannibalize the other; one will enhance the other," says D. Stuart McGeorge, director of merchandising and international sales.

Under the joint-venture agreement, L. L. Bean will not be directly responsible for the operations of the Tokyo store and other stores to come. Rather, Seiyu and Matsushita have created a new company, L. L. Bean-Japan, that will market the products. The Freeport company, in effect, will be the supplier to an independent Japanese company over which it will exercise indirect, but significant, control.

Under the agreement, L. L. Bean will have final say on product quality, use of trademarks and advertising. L. L. Bean also will train the Japanese sales staff.

Seiyu, based in Tokyo, is a well-known supermarket and department store conglomerate that had sales for fiscal 1991 of $8 billion. It will be largely responsible for handling the retail end of L. L. Bean-Japan operations.

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