Bean's Va. store its first outside Maine

L. L.

Outdoors outfitter opens outlet today in Tysons Corner mall

July 28, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

TYSONS CORNER, Va. - It's hard to hear the call of the wild above the roar of the Beltway.

But outdoors outfitter L. L. Bean hopes customers will be listening closely today when it opens its first retail store outside Maine in one of the region's highest-octane malls, Tysons Corner Center.

Will the company known for flannel shirts and down vests be able to compete in an arena occupied by Bloomingdale's, Brooks Brothers and Nordstrom, or will Bean be malled by the competition?

"We don't tread into this lightly," Bean spokesman Rich Donaldson said. "We know there's some risk."

Bean will stick its neck out even further next spring, when it opens its second store, in Columbia, and "pretty likely" another Maryland store by the end of 2002, Donaldson said. The two-story Tysons store is 76,000 square feet, about three-quarters the size of the flagship store in Freeport. The Columbia store will be half the size of the Virginia outlet.

Leon Gorman, L. L. Bean's grandson and president of the company, said adding stores is one way of showing younger buyers that Bean is "contemporary and modern."

"We've gotten an image somehow that we're not quite relevant to their lifestyle, and we have to convince them that we are," he said. "This gives us a physical presence."

Which brings us to today's opening and another Yankee invasion of the South. Thirty-five employees from Freeport have transferred permanently to the new store. Almost 100 other long-time employees are being shuttled south on temporary assignments "to bleed Bean green" on new colleagues, said Bill Shea, senior vice president and general manager of retail.

Mary Yeo, who trained employees at the Bean-affiliated stores in Japan (Bean doesn't own the stores), said it's an honor to be selected again.

"They had more than 400 applicants, and only 30 were picked for this trip. It's exciting," said Yeo, a grandmother who knows about excitement. In 1995, she was on the summit team of breast cancer survivors who conquered Argentina's 22,841-foot Anconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere.

In addition to learning about products offered by their new employer, the Tyson workers receive a full day's training in the lore and policies of founder Leon Leonwood Bean. The newcomers call it the "never-say-no-to-a-customer" lesson.

They also learned that they can have paid time off to go work on Appalachian Trail maintenance crews, and that the store is expected to get involved in other outdoor-related community activities.

"We want to inflict the passion of L. L. Bean on them," Shea said, only half joking in a thick Maine accent delivered at New York City speed. "A lot of the new employees we hired were already Bean customers, so they already know how a customer should be treated."

Gorman agreed. "It's pretty hard to go against the Bean culture here," he said.

Clerks in other stores in the mall have noticed "the Beanies," as they call them. They've also noticed that the Bean employees make a dollar or two more an hour than they do.

"Yeah," Shea said. "We're not popular with the other managers. But we don't want the problem of a turnover every 10 minutes."

In choosing the region, Bean skipped over other lucrative markets on the East Coast. The reason is simple, Donaldson said. When marketers looked at who was buying by catalog and online, they discovered a huge fan base - more than 1 million customers - in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

Bean, they found, has as many customers in Virginia as it does in Connecticut, and a higher percentage of penetration in this region than in New York. Those figures were music to the ears of top executives, who were trying to decide how to plump up the company's flat sales figures. They quickly signed leases at Tysons Corner Center in Fairfax and in Columbia.

The transplant comes with compromises. Bean, famous for its never-close policy in Freeport, will have to abide by mall hours. And there won't be any hunting department, because there won't be any guns (more mall rules). An indoor trout pond is used for the fishing demonstrations, but it is stocked with rainbows, not brookies.

Music also is piped in - popular stuff and jazz - something you won't hear up north.

"This is our first store, what do we know?" said Shea. "We won't try to duplicate Freeport. That would fail. If the magic isn't here, if it's just not working, we'll stop the expansion rather than lose the magic."

Asked what his grandfather, L. L., would think, Gorman smiled.

"I'm still getting used to the new Bean myself," he said. "He [L. L.] wasn't a stick in the mud. He'd say you have to go where the people are."

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