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Can’t Get a Pair of L.L. Bean Boots?

Questrom professor on the brand’s surge in popularity


For a fashion must-have, it’s surprisingly kind of ugly. We’re talking about L.L. Bean’s “Bean Boot.” The hand-sewn tan leather and black-webbed rubber boot (commonly referred to as the “original duck boot”) has become one of this winter’s fashion essentials for two reasons: because the wearer can splash through slush and snow without fear of wet, cold feet and because, well, they’re sort of cool.

The boots can be credited with making the 104-year-old L.L. Bean company hip. Best known for its boxy turtlenecks and flannel pajamas, the Freeport, Maine–based retailer has had a hard time keeping up with demand for the boots for the past two years. Order a pair now and you may find they’re backordered until April. This year alone, the company expects to make half a million pairs, more than three times the number made in 2005, according to a recent article in The Atlantic. Spurred by their popularity, brands like Sperry and North Face have begun churning out their own knockoffs.

Why are the boots so popular and what is it about the Bean brand, specifically, that attracts consumers? BU Today posed these questions to Barbara Bickart, a Questrom School of Business associate professor and chair of marketing.

BU Today: There’s a reported backlog of about 50,000 pairs of Bean Boots. Why do you think they’re so popular?

Bickart: I owned a pair 30 years ago. They were in style when I was in college. Right now it’s a hot brand. It comes across as being a real, authentic brand with associations to the outdoors and nature. Those associations might resonate with people right now. In addition, with all of the snow we received last year, at least in the Northeast, people are looking for stylish ways to keep their feet warm every day. I’m also guessing that UGGs are a little tired, fashion-wise.

What did you mean by the L.L. Bean brand being “real”?  

You have associations with L.L. Bean as an American company. They are headquartered in Freeport, Maine, and they have been around for a long time. The people who work there are true believers in the Bean brand, so their brand is embedded deeply into their retail operations. The employees seem to want to be there and help you find what you are looking for. All of these things make the brand feel true to its core. It is connected with nature and not flashy, not superficial. It’s not a traditionally standard brand. Something I find interesting is that the price isn’t prohibitive—they cost around $120, and that seems reasonable for a winter boot. It’s not a status brand, like the Canada Goose jackets. I think these boots come across as being “in,” without being in your face.

People appear to trust the brand. Can you talk about that?

I do think people seem to have a lot of trust in the brand. It could be because they manufacture in America—they have that strong association. I think they are true to what they say they are, too.

Bean boots, as you note, have been popular in the past. Is it typical for a brand to have a resurgence? Is there a way to predict when and if the bubble will burst?

It can happen. The preppy trend is back in. For example, Fair Isle sweaters are becoming popular again. In terms of fashion, you see an evolution or a recycling of certain themes over time.

You can look at the life cycles for different kinds of fashion trends. Some life cycles are longer, and some are more of a fad. So the question you have to figure out is, is this a fad or is this a fashion? A fad is very short. You have a high pitch, and then it drops off. A fashion will last longer. UGGs were around for a fairly long time as a fashion trend, but now I think more hearty boots have supplanted them in a way.

Any other factors that help explain the boot’s renewed popularity?

One thing that is really helping them is the perceived scarcity of the product. Scarcity increases the value of a product. There has been significant publicity about the Bean Boots being on backorder and that makes them appear more desirable. The fact that they are handmade contributes to both the scarcity and the perceived value and authenticity of the product.

I also checked out the company’s social media. They do a great job of responding to customer comments and questions in a timely and authentic way. They also do a good job of acknowledging consumer-generated content (photos, etc.). You may have seen that they have a Twitter handle that is @bootmobile, which they use to publicize the location of the L.L. Bean Bootmobile.

The boots are iconic, and the company is doing an amazing job of capitalizing on that iconic meaning.

Amy Laskowski, Senior Writer at Boston University Marketing & Communications editorial department
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

9 Comments on Can’t Get a Pair of L.L. Bean Boots?

  • Ted de Winter on 02.05.2016 at 7:33 am

    To state that LL Bean is best known for boxy turtle necks and flannel pajamas is absolute nonsense. They are best known for outdoor clothing and equipment and their reputation anfd fame is based on the boot in its many variations. Leon Leonwood Bean invented the boot and was renowned for the no questions asked return policy, which was frequently invoked during the early development of the boot.

    Although some of their clothing lines have gone yuppie, their mainstay is outdoor gear and clothing.

    I used to buy their outdoor gear (tent, dufflebags, fishing tackle) in the 1950’s when the only store was up a set of creaky wooden stairs above the Freeport post office.

    Incidentally, as the owner of a handfull of the famous boots I can confirm that the rubber lower parts of the boots are not black, but brown.

    People who write about LL bean should spend a little more time in their stores before trying to write about LL Bean.

  • calm down on 02.05.2016 at 8:53 am

    Did you really just write a diatribe about a slow news day article on winter boots

  • bruce jordan on 02.05.2016 at 9:22 am

    Note also that you used to be able to bring your boots back to be resoled, for free, as many times as necessary.

    • Kitty on 02.05.2016 at 11:25 am

      I believe that is still the policy at LLBean; their guarantees are lifetime, no-questions-asked.

      • Mary on 02.05.2016 at 11:32 am

        I just had mine re-soled for free. Llbean is the best.

  • Jack on 02.05.2016 at 9:55 am

    Why is this a story?

    • Rubes on 02.05.2016 at 10:29 am

      I think this is a great story–especially on a day like today! Ted is right. LL Bean has a stellar reputation for quality outdoor products going back decades. And their products are unconditionally guaranteed for life. No wonder they are often rated the #1 online retail company in America.

    • Kitty on 02.05.2016 at 11:30 am

      Probably because it is a fashion accessory, not because of their quality or guarantee.
      That’s a pity. Even Professor Bickart failed to mention — or it was not reported– that the boot is one of the iconic products of a company with what is likely the very best customer service in the country. That will endure regardless of whether the boot is regarded as a coveted fashion statement.

      • Mary on 02.05.2016 at 11:33 am

        I agree. Wearing certain items makes a statement. These boots make a statement, “I’m New England, I’m outdoors-y, I don’t care too much.”

        I still love llbean.

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