The Maine retailer L.L. Bean, best known for its catalog and online business, plans to triple the number of its stores in the United States and peddle rubber-toe boots and outdoor gear from at least 100 locations by 2020.
The Freeport company, which sold its first boots more than a century ago, said Wednesday that the expansion will give customers more ways to shop and improve its visibility in other parts of the country.
“As we get farther away from New England, people don’t have the same understanding of what our brand is,” said Ken Kacere, senior vice president of retail at L.L. Bean. “With more stores we can hopefully get a new generation of people in front of the brand.”
L.L. Bean currently sells outdoor equipment, active apparel, and casual clothing at 26 full retail stores and 10 outlets in a dozen states. The additional stores will open in existing and new markets, pushing beyond the company’s western border of Colorado, Kacere said.
The expansion plan was revealed the same day the private company reported a 3 percent sales bump to $1.6 billion in 2014 and performance bonuses for full-time employees. Kacere said all three divisions of the company — store, online, and catalog — reported increased business, compared to the year prior.
Analysts and executives credit the retailer’s success to a difficult winter that drove purchases of cold-weather products, an increase in demand for active gear and equipment as more consumers explore the outdoors, and the popularity of the trademark Bean boot.
L.L. Bean sold 450,000 pairs of its rubber and leather boots last year and could not keep up with demand during the holidays.
The company is expanding its brick-and-mortar operations while many traditional retailers are scaling back and shuttering stores. But the timing is right for L.L. Bean and other online-focused companies to expand to more physical locations, said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD Group, a market research firm in New York.
It’s an easy time to find real estate because so many oversaturated retailers are closing their doors, Cohen said.
Given the popularity of the boots, many consumers are curious about the brand and will want to check out other products. While online shoppers tend to search for one particular item, consumers are more prone to impulse buys when they can touch and see items in stores, Cohen said.
“The boot business and the fact that it is on back order makes things even better,” Cohen said. “Now people are coveting something that you can’t get easily, and it drives an even greater desire for the product. It brings more attention, and L.L. Bean can tell a really good story to the consumer.”
L.L.Bean Inc. was founded in 1912 by Leon Leonwood Bean. He hired a cobbler to stitch leather uppers to a pair of rubber boots, hoping to prevent his feet from getting wet on hunting trips.
Bean found a list of hunters and sent out flyers for his “Maine Hunting Shoe,” starting a one-man catalog business. By 1937, sales topped $1 million.
Over the years the company expanded to offer more casual and outdoor clothes and equipment. In 2000, L.L. Bean opened retail stores outside of Maine for the first time.
Rajiv Lal, a senior professor of retailing at Harvard Business School, credited the company with expanding strategically and methodically over time, instead of growing too quickly and becoming another apparel store without any distinction from other brands.
He said L.L. Bean has helped establish its outdoors identity by offering classes and excursions in its retail stores.
Now armed with loads of consumer data from online sales, the company is posed to select smart new locations, Lal said.
“It’s fantastic. Given the data they have, they know exactly what size the stores should be and they know exactly what sells and what doesn’t.”
Kacere said the new stores will be between 15,000 and 20,000 square feet. A quarter of the space will be devoted to outdoors equipment. Active apparel will take up 15 percent, and the rest will be filled with footwear, boots, and casual apparel.