Business & Tech

Extra-easy L.L. Bean return policy may get the boot

L.L. Bean is moving to cut costs by freezing pensions and offering voluntary early retirements.

Mike Groll/Associated Press

L.L. Bean is moving to cut costs by freezing pensions and offering voluntary early retirements.

L.L. Bean executives said the company would offer voluntary early retirements, freeze pensions, and review its “100 percent satisfaction” returns policy, a move that could have reverberations for customers throughout New England and beyond.

The generous, century-old policy has allowed customers unhappy with a tent or rubber-soled hunting boots to bring them back, even after years of use, typically with no questions asked.

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The company also offers free shipping on everything.

“Our guarantee is a handshake — a promise that we’ll be fair to each other,” the company pledges on its website. “So if something’s not working or fitting or standing up to the task or lasting as long as you think it should, we’ll take it back.”

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But L.L. Bean’s executive board chairman, Shawn Gorman, great-grandson of company founder Leon Leonwood Bean, said in a statement Thursday that the Freeport, Maine, company has been reviewing all aspects of the business and that changes are necessary to keep the privately held retailer competitive.

Company officials said the satisfaction guarantee has been abused in some instances, warranting a review. “Fraudulent returns have been a problem and we are definitely reviewing our policies, but we have made no decisions,” said L.L. Bean spokeswoman Carolyn Beem. “We will always stand behind our products.”

Roughly two decades ago, the company took steps to tighten its return policy, telling Reuters in 1995 that it was drawing the line at customers seeking to exchange goods bought elsewhere. “We think we owe it to society, we owe it to our customers, to draw a line in those situations where noncustomers are trying to convert those products into cash,” vice president Bill Shea told Reuters.

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In Thursday’s statement, L.L. Bean noted that changes related to its employee benefits, namely a shift to a 401(k) plan, came with trade-offs for its 5,000 employees.

“The company will expand its paid parental leave benefit, will add an eldercare support benefit, and more flexible time off,” the statement said.

L.L. Bean was in the spotlight recently after another board member, Linda Bean, the founder’s grandaughter, bankrolled a political group supporting Donald Trump in the fall.

The anti-Trump activist group Grab Your Wallet asked its followers to consider boycotting L.L. Bean, in addition to other brands affiliated with the Trump name.

That prompted Trump to take to Twitter just days after his election to declare his support for Linda Bean and the L.L. Bean brand.

Company officials told the Associated Press that the review and other changes at the company have been in the works for more than a year.

Just hours after news of the potential change in the returns policy broke Thursday, some L.L. Bean fans took to Twitter to express their frustration. “If L.L. Bean changes return policies they will lose incredibly loyal customer base,” @RPSmithyman observed.

Others took it a step further, noting that the potential loss of a “great return policy” could make them turn to other, less expensive retailers.

But as Gorman suggested, the lenient returns policy may have created one too many headaches for the company.

“Ask Andy About Clothes” a website that offers clothing advice forums for men, includes many entries from L.L. Bean customers weighing the ethical implications of some of their more questionable returns.

In 2015, one customer wanted advice on whether it was “sleazy” to send back several pairs of chinos and belts because they had gotten too small.

Another participant from Springfield, Ill., said that he wanted to return a pair of L.L. Bean moccasins, adding, “I’ve been meaning to do it for four years now, but just have never gotten around to it.”

He said he felt no guilt.

“This is why Bean’s return policy is so good.”

Lisa Tuite of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com.
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