L.L. Bean Follows Its Shoppers to the Web

L.L. Bean has never been known as a retail trendsetter. The chinos and rubber-soled boots in its latest lineup could have come from catalogs bulk-mailed decades ago. The company has built a loyal following over the past 98 years with its liberal return policy and folksy sales staff, but it nabbed the No. 1 spot in this year's Bloomberg BusinessWeek customer service ranking by adapting to the way its customers shop now.

This year, for the first time, Internet sales will top catalog orders at the $1.5 billion Freeport (Me.) retailer of outdoor gear. But L.L. Bean has done more than install such e-tailing basics as designing a Web site that makes placing orders intuitive and package tracking simple. It switched to a new bank that agreed to split the cost of free return shipping to holders of the L.L. Bean credit card. It also opened the site to customer ratings and reviews of its wares, even if they're negative. Today shoppers can chat with call center agents through instant messaging and e-mail. And by next fall the site will add a "click and call" feature that will prompt a help call within two minutes to any online shopper who wants more information. "Wherever they want to shop, we have to be there," says Terry Sutton, vice-president for customer satisfaction.

The shift from catalog to Web sales has been disruptive internally. Because of declines in phone-in order volume, L.L. Bean in April will close one of its four call centers, 55 miles from its headquarters. The 220 year-round employees affected will be allowed to work from home or another site. Although L.L. Bean management could cut costs by offshoring back-office operations, it has kept them in Maine, where Leon Leonwood Bean founded his mail-order company and his original store. The company offers competitive wages, health-care benefits, discounts, and even a pension.

Sutton says that money is well spent, since happier employees mean better service, which in turn means more repeat business. "The technology has changed the game, but the basics haven't changed," Sutton says. "We treat customers like we'd want to be treated."

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