Bean gets ready for Columbia opening

L. L.

Full-service store to be second outside the base in Maine

April 29, 2001|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

At the pace L. L. Bean Inc. is opening retail stores, the 89-year-old company isn't looking to match Wal-Mart.

When Bean opens Friday at The Mall in Columbia, that will be only its second full-service store outside its base in Freeport, Maine, as the company that made its name as a catalog seller of outdoor gear and apparel looks to expand into storefront retail.

Treading carefully, said Brad Kauffman, Bean's senior vice president and general manager of retail, "gives us the opportunity to learn how to do [retail] correctly. To make some mistakes without betting the farm. It's typical of Bean to walk before it runs."

"We think it's important for us to be accessible to our customers in a variety of ways: catalogs, Internet and now retail stores," Kauffman said. "It's part of a larger plan to be accessible to our existing customer base."

The outdoor apparel-and-gear market that Bean targets has grown steadily over the past five years into a $10 billion annual industry, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. More Americans are turning to outdoor recreation activities - from kayaking and climbing to hiking and camping - and they're spending more money to equip and dress themselves, according to industry surveys.

And the Baltimore region is slated to become the target of a major scramble for those dollars.

Bean, which had $1.1 billion in sales last year, is to be followed in the fall by another major catalog retailer - Bass Pro Outdoor World - at Arundel Mills mall. Both will compete for customers against existing retailers, including Eastern Mountain Sports, Recreational Equipment Inc., Hudson Trail Outfitters and Sunny's Affordable Outdoor Stores.

Analysts said that presents a danger that too many stores will join the fray and sets up the possibility that some will fail.

"I think the outlook for that [outdoor] sector has picked up within the last year ... and the recreational subsector is probably one of the stronger niches," said Richard K. Miller, whose Norcross, Ga., company publishes annual market research handbooks on the retail and leisure-time markets.

"You have an increase in adventure vacations, more leisure time among baby boomers, and a good economy for the high-end products, particularly baby-boomers' budgets for those products," Miller said. "It's a good time, but I have yet to see a market where there's an opportunity that doesn't get saturated over time."

Established catalogers such as Bean and Bass Pro are well-positioned to succeed with their strong brand names and deep offerings, analysts said. Bean built its reputation selling its branded apparel and gear, while Bass Pro, in addition selling to its own brand, offers many other brands of clothing and equipment.

Analysts said that the way the outdoor market is going, both approaches can succeed.

"Certainly, brands like L. L. Bean which have been successful should be able to stand out," said Mike Porges, senior partner in retail with Accenture Ltd., the world's largest management and technology consulting firm. "I think there's growth in the market. The challenge will be to find the right size and positioning of store concept to appeal to the market, while being focused enough to retain customers."

For 83 years, the only full-service store that customers could visit was the one Bean has operated in Freeport since 1917; it is Maine's second-largest tourist attraction after Acadia National Park. Then last year Bean opened a 76,000- square-foot store in Tysons Corner Center in McLean, Va. - 30 miles from where it is opening the 32,000- square-foot Columbia store. It also operates a dozen factory outlets, including one in Hagerstown that opened last month and one in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

The privately held company, still controlled by the descendants of founder Leon Leonwood Bean, does the bulk of its business in the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast. Spokeswoman Janet Wyper said customers typically are well-educated individuals and active families who enjoy outdoor recreation, particularly hiking, walking, backpacking and camping.

"Putting one in Columbia tells you that the Maryland-Virginia market has been very strong for them, otherwise they wouldn't put one so close," said Mark Millman, president of retail consulting firm Millman Search Group in Lutherville. "They should do exceptional in Columbia."

Some area competitors said they think L. L. Bean's two stores in such close proximity will siphon sales from its catalog operation.

But that hasn't happened, said Wyper, noting that mid-Atlantic catalog sales haven't sagged since the Tysons store opened. Instead, she said, the stores will likely "raise the awareness of the company and reinforce the brand with those who are already loyal to the company."

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