About the Author
Jim Gorman is an award-winning book and magazine author. He's a contributing
editor to Backpacker and Popular Mechanics magazines, and his writing has
appeared in Men's Health, Runner's World, This Old House, Country Living,
National Geographic Adventure, Better Homes & Gardens, Endless Vacation,
Bicycling, Boy's Life, and elsewhere. He writes primarily about the
environment, outdoor exploration on foot and mountain bike, health &
wellness, home & garden, and energy conservation.
Jim's work has won a variety of awards, including a National Magazine Award
(2003) for "Wild In The Parks," National Geographic Adventure Magazine;
Travel Writer of the Year Award from the Caribbean Tourism Organization for
""Wild Beauties," Endless Vacation Magazine; and the Pluma de Plata (Silver
Quill) Award for Best Travel Writing on Mexico from the Mexico Tourism
Board, for "Zacatecas: Desert Rose," also in Endless Vacation Magazine. He
was also a National Magazine Award Finalist in 2005 for "Grail Trails,"
National Geographic Adventure Magazine.
Prior to his career as a freelance writer, Jim was an editor at Backpacker
Magazine, the website GORP.com, and the environmental journal World Watch.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
How did L.L. Bean thrive as scores of other retailers withered? Durable goods, a great reputation, and savvy retailing had a lot to do with it. But America was also changing in ways that played to L.L. Bean’s strengths. Paid vacation, a foreign concept during the Industrial Era, was becoming the norm (for those lucky enough to be working). By the end of the Thirties, half of American workers would earn paid time off, the luckiest enjoying two weeks or more. Whereas a Sunday afternoon spent picnicking in a local park was the best the average person could muster at the turn of the twentieth century, Americans in the late-1930s had sufficient time off to get out of town. And with a shiny Buick or Ford in the driveway, they now had the means.
Throughout the Victoria Era and into the early decades of the twentieth century, vacationing was a distinctly upper class pursuit. While the masses sweltered through the summer months in the inner city, high society retired to resorts and grand hotels at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia; Saratoga Springs, New York; Mackinaw Island, Michigan; and the like. Had they the money to stay in such luxury, it’s doubtful the new breed of footloose wage earners would have been welcome. Instead, America’s middle class took to the road. With practically no tourist infrastructure of inexpensive hotels or motels in existence, vacation destinations were limited. Out of necessity, leisure travelers took to tenting. To these free-wheelers, it didn’t much matter whether the ideal camping spot was in a national park or farmer’s field as long as it was far from the crowded, noisy city. Inexpensive and liberating, auto camping” was the rage, and L.L. fine-tuned his catalog to meet the needs of the tin can tourist.”
L.L.'s selection process for new items for his catalog was not based on market surveys or merchandising analyses. He simply went with his gut, and with is personal experience. If he used and approved of a product while on one of his hunting and fishing trips, it stood a good chance of getting in. Sometimes a product was developed in-house and then field-tested until the kinks worked out. Other times, as with the Hudson’s Bay Blanket, he simply offered another manufacturer’s product. The particulars behind L.L.’s decisions on product placement in the early years are usually unknown. He wasn’t much for record keeping and even less inclined toward noting his thoughts on paper. From our perspective, a hundred years after he went out on a limb to sell a new boot, L.L.’s marketing skills seem to have sprung up fully formed. For such an outgoing public figure, to this day he engenders some degree of mystery. Much of what we do know about him is reflected from oral histories and accounts kept by the people who worked or hunted with him. Justin Williams, a longtime Bean employee in the early days, provided such a mirror. His recollection of a particular duck hunting trip in the late-1930s gives us a glimpse of product development, L.L.-style:
I had this old duck-call that I got around 1938 or soone of the best ever made,” said Williams. L.L. and Danny Snow were in one blind and I was in another with the dog. So I got this old duck-call out and used it. Within a few minutes there must have been 500 ducks flying around the blinds. I mean the sky was filled with ducks. L.L. was standing there in shock, and ’til the day he died, he never got over it. You can believe that the next fall he had duck-calls in his catalog
patterned after the one I used that day.”
Williams also witnessed what happened when one of L.L.’s field tests went awry. In this case, L.L. was trying out a fancy new fishing rod pressed on him by a salesman for possible inclusion in the catalog. The fact that several other outfitters had placed big orders for the rod didn’t impress L.L. He took the rod on a fishing trip, hooked onto a big fish, the rod snapped in half and went overboard. That was the end of that,” said Williams.
It wasn’t easy to sell to L.L.,” recalled Williams. He had to see the truth of things for himself. If he put a product in the catalog, you can bet it was tested and was worth having, and no doubt about it at all. He started building a reputation for that right from the beginning.”