FREEPORT, Maine — Imagine 50,000 people, waiting. Not for a driver's license renewal. Not for a reservation at a restaurant. Not for a doctor's appointment.
They're waiting for a pair of L.L. Bean's signature boots.
A backlog for impatient boot lovers — it's a line of customers that would be the envy of any business owner — is the norm again, for a third straight holiday season. Caught in a spiraling trend that has made the homely hunting boot the footwear of choice for teens and college kids, L.L.Bean will disappoint shoppers again this holiday season, even after having added 200 skilled workers and buying a second machine that makes the rubber bottoms.
"This is in some way a nice problem to have, in the sense that you have a 103-year-old product that's selling off the shelves like hot cakes, and yet we have customers who are on back order who are disappointed," L.L.Bean's chief executive, Chris McCormick, said in an interview at company headquarters in Freeport. "That doesn't sit well with us."
So, at a factory the size of two football fields in the small coastal town of Brunswick, 300 people work nearly round the clock, churning out about 2,200 pairs of L.L.Bean's signature boots each day. The factory rarely closes, and some workers clock in six days a week.
McCormick is grappling with a tricky balance between labor and equipment costs and a backlog of unhappy customers. At least for now, he hesitates to dramatically increase the number of workers and buy expensive machinery to fix what could be a temporary shortage.
"It feels like we take two steps forward and three steps behind. It just keeps coming," said Diane Lavallee, a 23-year veteran, as she stitched a shearling lining into a boot. "We feel bad. People are waiting, and we want to please our customers. It's just crazy, and I've never seen it like this before."
The trend can be traced loosely back to 2012 ,when InStyle, Shape, Glamour, Us Weekly, and The Wall Street Journal wrote about the boot, some naming the Bean Boot the "it" shoe of the season.
Last year, it got a boost from none other than the famed Spanish high heel designer Manolo Blahnik — he of "Sex and the City" fame — who said he needed a pair to trudge through the slushy streets during New York Fashion Week.
L.L.Bean could outsource thousands of boots to catch up or move production to Asia, where most US brands make shoes and boots because the manufacturing costs are cheaper.
McCormick abhors the suggestion. Founder Leon Leonwood Bean invented the shoe in Maine — by stitching the bottom of a rubber workman's boot to a leather upper to keep his feet dry on hunting trips — and it will always be made by L.L.Bean employees in Maine, he said.
"It would be terrible," McCormick said. "We would never do that."
Analysts say that L.L.Bean's strategy is financially responsible and shrewd. By slowly ramping up manufacturing, the company avoids creating a surplus that might swamp demand and force price markdowns. The "Made in America" label adds cachet, and the scarcity of the boot continues to increase its popularity.
"It's very successful because it tells the consumer that you can't wait to buy it tomorrow, you have to buy it today," said Michael Silverstein, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group. "There are people who would die to be in their shoes."
In the factory in Brunswick, Linda Brown sits at a sewing machine and stitches smooth pieces of tan leather to form the back of the trademark Bean Boot.
Nearby, 22-year L.L.Bean veteran Mary Jo Tufts dunks a waterproof liner into a tub of liquid and searches for leaks.
At the end of the line, Steve Paone inspects each boot before it is shipped. A stitch veers a few millimeters off its line, and he tosses a perfectly functional pair of the most sought-after boots in the country into a bin full of rejects.
"L.L.Bean is a great quality product," Paone said, serious and soft-spoken. "I take a lot of pride in it."
In May, L.L.Bean added a second $1.2 million injection-molding machine that produces the rubber sole of the boots. The company is awaiting an order of 55 stitching machines and leather cutters, a cost of about $800,000. It has hired 200 additional bootmakers in the last two years to increase production and plans to hire at least 45 more by September.
Thanks to the emergence of "retro" and "lumberjack chic" fashion, a generation of twentysomethings and teens are rediscovering the rubber toe duck boots their grandparents made popular decades ago. Thousands of young woman at campuses across the country sport the boots over leggings or skinny jeans, often with a pair of wool socks peeking out of the top.
Recent harsh winters in the Northeast and an L.L.Bean marketing campaign to celebrate its 100th year in 2012 added to the boot's popularity. That year, the company toured the country in a 13-foot-high and 20-foot-long "bootmobile," a Bean Boot on wheels.
Certain styles and sizes of Bean Boots have sold out every year since 2011, when L.L.Bean factory workers put together 275,000 pairs. Demand surged last year, and the company had fallen behind on 100,000 orders by December.
This year, the main factory and another in Lewiston are set to produce 510,000 pairs, about 60,000 more than in 2014.
The company expects to produce about 600,000 boots next year with the new machines and workers, if demand continues to go up.
Boots are often shipped months after consumers place an order, and some styles are currently unavailable until late February, according to the L.L.Bean website. This year, consumers continued to order the boots throughout the off-season, and the company said it didn't have any downtime to stockpile inventory.
McCormick said it's not easy to find skilled shoe workers in Maine, where shoe manufacturing was once a mainstay of the economy. Cole Haan made shoes in Livermore Falls, and Dexter Shoe Co. employed hundreds at its factory in Dexter. Sebago made shoes in Westbrook, and Bass manufactured them in Wilton.
Most had left their facilities by the middle of the last decade and moved overseas.
L.L.Bean said it takes about six months to train each employee. Beyond the 45 workers that will be hired by next September, McCormick is hesitant to expand much more.
"You would have to bring these people on, train them, keep them on full time, and then when the demand curve goes down, what are you going to do?" McCormick asked. "Say, 'Thanks for helping us during our time of need, and now you're unemployed?' We don't do things that way."
Yet the delays may be sending potential L.L.Bean customers to other brands, said Marshal Cohen, the chief retail analyst at NPD Group in New York.
At the same time, the boots are most popular among a generation of young people accustomed to waiting for products, such as the newest iPhone model, video games, limited-edition sneakers, and Black Friday doorbusters.
"It adds to the lore and the beauty of getting the boot," Cohen said. "It's the smartest strategy you can possibly employ."
The sole of L.L. Bean
One hundred and four years after the first pair of Bean boots was made in Maine for sportsmen, the footgear is in the fashion spotlight, appearing in high-style magazines and on the feet of supercool celebrities.