L.L. Bean's Ugly Duck Boots: Suddenly Hip, and Sold Out for Winter

Source: Patrick/Flickr

L.L. Bean, the Freeport, Maine-based clothing and camping company, has been making its signature leather-and-rubber Bean “Duck” Boots by hand for the past 102 years. It sells about 100,000 pairs of them annually, mostly to “loggers and farmers—the kind of folks who’re outside a lot,” says Mac McKeever, L.L. Bean’s spokesperson. “People in cities, not so much.”  Or, at least, that’s how it used to be. This winter,  the boots are so popular among urbanites that the company can’t keep them in stock.

Sales of the style have quadrupled over the past three years and are on track to hit more than 450,000 in 2014. Now that it’s the holiday shopping season, L.L. Bean has more than 60,000 orders it can’t fulfill. It expects the shortage to grow to 100,000 by the end of December. Nearly every size and style of the boot is on backorder until at least February, although you can still find errant pairs at third-party retailers like Zappos. “We saw this coming months ago and tried to gear up appropriately,” says McKeever. “But demand outpaced even our most ambitious projections. We’re trying to make them as fast as we can.”

L.L. Bean first noticed an uptick in sales two years ago, specifically in urban areas filled with college students, who were embracing understated, even bland styles that highlighted their authentic ordinariness. (“Normcore,” some people called it.) Along with turtlenecks and socks-with-sandals, the boot’s popularity was growing. ”I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they’re still handmade. People really value stuff like that right now,” says McKeever. Like farm-to-table turnips and small-batch whiskies, the duck boot quickly became a totem of agrarian-chic trendiness. Glamour, Esquire and GQ recommend them.

So how is the company keeping up with demand? This spring, L.L. Bean hired 100 new bootmakers to help handle what it expected to be a busy holiday shopping season. It takes six months of training before someone can make a duck boot—old-fashioned stitching machines are still run by hand—so when it became starkly clear after Black Friday that 500 bootmakers weren’t going to be enough, the company didn’t know what to do. It bought a new injection molding machine to make the boots’ rubber bottoms faster. And it added a third shift at its Lewiston factory, which is now running close to 24-hours a day.

Footwear, in particular, is tough to manufacture. And name-brand shoes are also subject to the whims of the trendy more than, say, t-shirts or jeans. So L.L. Bean is essentially experiencing the same rush that shoes like Hush Puppies and Ugg have already endured. These historic companies were similarly caught off-guard when the same old thing they’d been selling for years suddenly became hot.

Before 1992, Hush Puppies sold about 70,000 pairs of their brushed-suede loafers every year. “We did a poll that year to find out what people thought of the brand and our top three attributes were ‘comfortable,’ ‘casual,’ and ‘not for me,’” says Jeff Lewis, a former vice president of marketing at Hush Puppies who worked there until 2003. But while most people associated the shoes with their grandparents, a group of fashion-forward teenagers in New York’s Soho neighborhood started buying Hush Puppies at thrift stores. Two years later, fashion designers such as John Bartlett and Anna Sui were using them in their runway shows. “It just took off as a kind of pre-viral campaign,” says Lewis. (Hush Puppies’ revival is excellently catalogued in Malcolm Gladwell’s 1997 New Yorker article, “The Coolhunt.”)

By 1996, Hush Puppies was selling a million shoes worldwide. The brand’s parent company Wolverine Worldwide, which also owns Keds, Saucony and Stride Rite, was able to easily alter its production schedules to meet demand. But Lewis says that the company’s inventory and shipping systems weren’t equipped to handle such a fast influx; the company had trouble filling stores’ orders. At one point, Hush Puppies were so hard to find that a UPS delivery truck was raided when it tried to deliver a shipment to a San Francisco boutique. “The funniest part was that when we re-did that branding poll in 1996, people were telling us, ‘I’ve always loved Hush Puppies,’” says Lewis.

Ugg boots—and its parent company, Deckers — had a similar issue after Oprah Winfrey put the boots on her 2001 list of “Favorite Things.” Over the next four years, Ugg sales soared from $19 million to $102 million. In December 2003, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that they were sold out until the following April and were going for as much as $500 on eBay. (L.L. Bean boots can currently be had for about $250 on eBay, or two and a half times their original price). German-made Birkenstocks couldn’t keep up in summer 2014, except they claimed they were purposely limiting certain styles. “We’ll say to retailers, ‘We have production constraints’…wink wink ,” David Kahan, chief executive officer of Birkenstock’s American division, told Bloomberg Businessweek in June.

In a few years, or even by next winter, it’s likely the L.L. Bean boot trend will dissipate and people will have moved on to, say, reindeer-skinned Eskimo mulaks. But if the company’s experience is the same as Hush Puppies’ or Uggs’, the company will be better off after this crisis. Thirteen years after Oprah first plugged them, Ugg sales are still strong; the company has since expanded into all-season footwear and accessories, capitalizing on increased name recognition, celebrity customers, and millions of devoted customers for whom puffy boots were just a gateway drug into the brand. Hush Puppies didn’t expand quite as rapidly, but “we had a bigger customer base to build off of,” says Lewis. “It left us in a much better place.”

Back at L.L. Bean, McKeever says he’s already seen a spike in sales of wool coats.