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Journey of discovery

Regional icon L. L. Bean ventures into Mid-Atlantic states to see whether stores can blossom outside of Maine

MCLEAN, Va. --It can be a tricky business, trying to export a New England retail icon south. Just ask Filene's Basement, whose drawing power seemed to wane beyond area code 617.

So, in opening its first full-price store outside of Maine today, L. L. Bean Inc. is taking no chances.

After all, the new store here is crucial to a plan for boosting flat sales by winning over new customers who live in faraway places where L. L. Bean lore and legend are less familiar.

To instantly acclimate outlanders to a tradition that began in 1912, the new store seeks to recreate a bit of Freeport, Maine, in a most unMainelike shopping mall near Washington, D.C.

No expense has been spared. At this retail shrine to the duckboot and the kayak, there's an indoor waterfall, a trout pond, and a climbing wall for children - though the store will not be open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year "to accommodate," as company founder Leon Leonwood Bean once said, "sportsmen who appear at the store at any hour of the day or night, en route to their favorite fishing hole or hunting ground," a la Freeport.

As a grandson of L. L., president Leon A. Gorman knows there can be a downside to the venerable past.

If his company is to move forward, he believes, it must dispel the widely held view that L. L. Bean mostly sells old-fashioned gear for surviving New England winters.

Gorman said of consumers: "They know us a little differently than the way we want them to know us."

To regain the momentum it enjoyed when preppy fashions had their heyday, the company must convince folks who don't care about the Red Sox or the color of their chowder that L. L. Bean is a contemporary retailer for all seasons and a merchant for all Americans.

That's where the new store fits in. Think of it as a missionary outpost in a foreign country. In part, the store's job

is to create awareness and spread the gospel as L. L. Bean seeks converts in geographies far beyond the Connecticut River.

Let folks from mid-Atlantic states see the store and feel the merchandise; let them experience firsthand the mystique of quality and service, and over time, they'll become as loyal to L. L. Bean as someone from Bangor, Berwick, or Bar Harbor. Kate Stevenson, associate director of the National Park Service, is scheduled to cut the ribbon today; 5 percent of sales from the grand opening weekend will be donated to the National Park Foundation, which helps support the national parks.

"We came down here for business-growth reasons, but also for brand-building reasons, and the latter may be more important," Gorman said.

Over the next few years, Gorman plans to open three to five stores in states such as Maryland and Virginia.

"That will tell us if the Bean concept is exportable," Gorman said.

Add new stores to the mix, and Gorman thinks they'll improve catalog and Web site sales as well. If all goes according to plan, privately held L. L. Bean aims to reach $1.3 billion in annual sales within a few years.

That would be about 30 percent higher than 1999 sales of $1.06 billion, up from $1.03 billion in 1998. Catalog sales accounted for 78 percent of the total; Internet sales for 9 percent. Besides its famous store in Freeport, the company operates 12 outlet stores.

New stores offer another advantage. A big chunk of L. L. Bean's catalog business comes during the holidays. New stores should help L. L. Bean become more of a 12-month business.

At first glance, exporting L. L. Bean's magic south wouldn't seem much of a challenge. After all, if something has thrived in Maine, why shouldn't it work somewhere else?

Not all New England retail legends have traveled well.

In Boston, Filene's Basement has been beloved by generations of locals. Yet when it opened satellite stores outside its home turf, it eventually ran into trouble, winding up in Chapter 11.

While there are many complex reasons why Filene's Basement was recently acquired by an Ohio department-store chain, there is also a simple one: To a Bostonian, Filene's Basement will always be unique. But to consumers visiting the chain's outposts in Minnesota or Illinois, Filene's Basement was just another store.

That's not to say expansion can't work. One local retailer that has had success beyond New England is Legal Sea Foods Inc., which operates about half of its 21 restaurants outside the region.

As it roamed far from the Hub, Legal Sea Foods had to make changes, adding more crab dishes and cream sauces to its menu to keep new customers happy in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

"You can't take an exact template from one area and replicate it in another," said Legal Sea Food chief executive Roger Berkowitz.

How L. L. Bean fares beyond New England is anyone's guess.

Unfortunately, the moment for expansion may not be the most auspicious. Like many apparel retailers, including Lands' End Inc. and Eddie Bauer, L. L. Bean has seen soft sales recently.

According to catalog industry consultant Maxwell Sroge, clothing trends seem to be working against some catalogers.

"L. L. Bean and Lands' End are not exactly at the cutting edge of fashion," he said.

Opening new stores is only part of a strategy to boost sales. Fashion figures into it too. Last year, L. L. Bean launched a women's career-wear line called Freeport Studio that aims beyond the sensible-shoe crowd. While early results did not meet optimistic expectations, recent sales have improved, Gorman said.

L. L. Bean also looked for a lift from an ad campaign with the message, "Start here, go anywhere." But L. L. Bean and its ad agency, Mullen of Wenham, recently parted ways.

Such issues aside, the opening of new stores could put 88-year-old L. L. Bean at the forefront of 21st-century retail.

A few years ago, the conventional wisdom held that retailers that sold goods only online would persuade busy consumers to abandon brick-and-mortar stores for Internet convenience.

But stocking warehouses, shipping orders, and handling returns - something L. L. Bean and Lands' End have excelled at for years - proved too much for many Internet upstarts.

Now the revisionist thinking is that the shrewd retailer of the 21st century will employ a "brick-and-click" strategy, one that lets consumers choose how they want to buy goods - at a store, on the Web, or through a catalog.

Under this formula, each channel reinforces the other two. A store makes many consumers feel more comfortable about buying goods from the retailer's Web site. And some consumers like referring to a catalog as they make purchases from a Web site.

"It creates all sorts of synergies," Sroge said of this approach. "The catalog promotes the brand, and the store promotes the Web site. It's like a retail triple play."

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