In 1912 an outdoorsman in Maine – Leon Leonwood Bean -- began selling a “duck boot” that he called the Maine Hunting Shoe. It is a rubber boot on the bottom but at the ankle the upper part changes to leather. What made it more unique was that every pair came with a lifetime guarantee and it’s the ironclad warranty that has made it the most sought-after boot in the world today.
That guarantee, which has made L.L. Bean one of the most respected companies in America for over 100 years, was felled on Friday with every bit as much sorrow and forlorn as though some great and majestic California Sequoia tree had just been cut down by a hoodlum on a drunken tear.
Company president Shawn Gorman, in an open letter to L.L. Bean customers, didn’t white-wash why there is now a one-year guarantee in its place. “Increasingly, a small, but growing number of customers has been interpreting our guarantee well beyond its original intent. Some view it as a lifetime product replacement program, expecting refunds for heavily worn products used over many years. Others seek refunds for products that have been purchased through third parties, such as at yard sales.”
As a third-generation owner of “many things Bean,” I often jump into my “Maine Guide Shoes” – that have lived for decades under my side of the bed -- to fetch the newspaper on rainy mornings. While I’ve been through a number of replacements, I always buy mine because I’m the one who wore the soles down. It is the right thing to do. But the fact there is the guarantee is what has made L.L. Bean millions. Many believe it is the best marketing stunt ever devised.
When his boots final took off, other business owners would laugh at L.L. Bean for the senseless boot warranty, seemingly oblivious to the realization the same customers would buy thousands of other items out of loyalty. Want another laugh? Right now there are 600,000 pairs of L.L. Bean Guide Boots being constructed for this year alone. They can’t make ‘em fast enough – my gracious, there are, at this very minute, over 50,000 pairs on back-order.
If I have learned one thing in my life, it is that “you get what you pay for.” My goodness, I am such a brand loyalist I am in a league all by myself. A brand name means just one thing to me: it is a reputation I respect and a brand I trust. Let me give you some examples of how that works:
PATAGONIA – Back in the early ‘70s, a rock climber in California, Yvon Chouinard, started an outdoor clothing company where he offered heavy-knit Scottish rugby jerseys for other outdoor pursuits. Soon he got into down jackets, canvas shorts that last a lifetime, and the best quality of goods in the world. I got onto “good ‘Gonia” real early as a sports writer and almost 50 years later can easily say I wear something Patagonia four or five days in every week. This gear is fabulous. It appeals to me. I like colors, versus some guy who wears the grays and browns of a pile of rocks. Patagonia is very pricy but they have an ironclad guarantee as well and what they can’t repair – for free – they’ll replace. To me, with its eco-friendliness and love of our planet, Patagonia is one of my top five favorite companies in the world.
SUNGLASSES – In the mid-80s another California guy – Bill Capps – started the Maui Jim sunglasses company and it has been “my shade” ever since those first few months. This summer my lab retriever annihilated a $300 pair I had left on the front seat. Talk about breaking your heart, not to mention the bank! It was totally my fault but, for 10 dollars, I got a repair number and a shipping label from the company and they promised they would try. Two weeks later a box arrived and I swear I think they sent me a new pair. Unbelievable … and you think I’ll ever wear any other brand of sunglasses. Yeah, they cost a lot but, for the true value, not much over a lifetime.
READING GLASSES – I’ve got Eye-Bobs reading glasses scattered not just at home and in the car but all over the South. They are made to a degree of excellence that assures me my vision is in no danger. I’ve had cataracts in both eyes and my mom went through horrors with low-pressure glaucoma. Never try to save money when your eyesight is involved. But Eye-Bobs? Same deal: They’ll repair up to five pairs for 10 dollars and that covers the shipping both ways. What shocked me was that I mailed the pairs of broken glasses on Monday and they were back by Friday. If you want to sell reading glasses, under-promise and over-deliver.
I adore, respect, appreciate, and support the best -- Lucchese cowboy boots, Bill’s Khaki’s, Brooks Brothers dress shirts, John Deere, Caterpillar earth machines, Delta, Coca-Cola, Lexus … there is a reason. Nothing takes the place of excellence. L.L. Bean guaranteed it.
Near Virginia Beach on the coast, people can see the huge sign for miles reads, “Newport News Ship Yards.” What they cannot see – only visible from the water – is what the shipyard employees read every day on the backside of that sign: “We build good ships. At a profit when we can; at a loss when we must. But, always, good ships.”
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“Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.” Dr. Seuss