BRUNSWICK, Maine—For over a hundred years, the company Leon Leonwood Bean founded has been making rubber boots and outdoor clothes in this area, about 25 miles north of Portland. But on the particular afternoon I visited their manufacturing plant, loud music was pumping inside the office, beats spilling into the cubicled area where visitors sign in—a Zumba class for employees was in progress.
L.L. Bean’s offerings have traditionally not been synonymous with cool. The company’s signature items are intended for the unglamorous activity of camping: pragmatic sleeping bags, flannel pajamas, fleeces, and down jackets. But then something happened in 2011: The outdoorsy aesthetic that L.L. Bean had been selling for 100 years became trendy. That’s when the duck-boot shortage first began, and “Bean Boot heartbreak” spread as countless consumers found that retailers didn’t have what they wanted. Every autumn since, business reporters have provided updates on whether the duck boot is selling out. This year’s update? It still is.
“The demand for Bean Boots has cycled up and down during the hundred years we’ve [been] making it. We don't go out of our way to find those trends,” says Eric Smith, a public relations representative for L.L. Bean. “The trends keep coming back to us. Then people will go away for awhile and they keep coming back. We’re just happy to be in one of those cycles, when it’s the largest of those cycles we’ve seen.”
The answer to why the signature Bean Boot has sold out every year since 2011, even as the company has been ramping up production significantly, surely is in part due to the demand generated by the fashion world. But the answer also lies in the decisions the company has made back in Maine, decisions that are different than other American manufacturers in the past few decades.
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In Photos: A Duck Boot in Demand
In Brunswick, L.L. Bean operates a 170,000-square-foot factory where the boot is assembled from start to finish. The rubber bottom of the Bean Boot is made by a machine, but after that it’s handmade by 200 people who split their time between three shifts. All in all, making the boot takes about 85 minutes’ worth of labor (not including the breaks in between stations). Royce Haines, the senior manager of manufacturing at L.L. Bean, describes it as “a mix of old and new technology”: While the boots aren’t made exactly as they used to be, the assembly process and sewing are all done by hand.
There are two main reasons, then, the Bean Boot can’t keep up with demand. The first is the company’s decision to keep making the boot in Maine, rather than exporting operations out to, say, China, where the majority of shoes sold to Americans are made. Fifty years ago, 98 percent of shoes for Americans were made in the U.S. Nowadays, one estimate suggests that China makes 12.5 billion pairs of shoes, which is about 90 percent of shoes made worldwide. To preserve its brand, L.L. Bean keeps operations local.
Another part of the reason for staying is that it lets sourcing remain local. “All the materials we use are primarily sourced in the United States, a lot of the leather comes from right here in Maine at a tannery, other parts of the Midwest, the shearling is from Texas, we produce our own boot bottoms,” says Smith. “The steel comes from local artisans who work for us.”
The second reason that the boot keeps selling out is that it’s not as easy to find shoe makers in Maine as it used to be. “Brunswick was famous for footwear. They had a lot of shops that were building hand-sewn footwear… but as shoe shops went away in the U.S. the skill went along with it,” says Haines. For that reason, scaling up has become more difficult than in the past, when L.L. Bean could simply find workers in the area.
“Freeport, which is where the boot began, that really was the shoe capital,” says Smith. “There was a dozen or more companies and brands of shoes that were made in those factories. Some of those are heritage brands, but they’re not made in Freeport anymore—like Eastland and Cole Haan are both shoe companies that started in Freeport.”
As the skills gap grew in the Brunswick area, L.L. Bean started training its own workforce through a program that takes an average of six months to complete. “The challenge for us right now is that the needle trades (stitching industry) just diminished over time in the U.S. and it’s hard to find skilled labor, and we have to establish training programs that can take somebody who has never stitched in their life and teach them how to make boots,” says Haines.
Despite this, the company is making more duck boots than ever in its history. This year’s production schedule is set to hit half a million pairs of duck boots, more than three times the number of boots L.L. Bean made in 2005. While that’s a lot, the company can’t scale up production all that quickly.
Nor does it seem to particularly want to. Haines says that building your own workforce means considering what happens if that overwhelming demand suddenly goes away. “It’s gone on for five years, so there’s got to be some skepticism about how long that can last,” said Haines. “We’re building our own strength up with the resources that we have, so we’re really sensitive to opening up, starting up something that doesn’t have a lot of stability attached to it.”
Additionally, one benefit of the company’s current predicament may be that, as researchers have shown, waiting for a product makes people place a higher value on it. “I think that one of the things that’s so interesting is that it’s really the opposite of fast fashion, because these are really made to last,” said Smith. “They’re made to last not just years, but literally, generations. I mean, we have people that are going to school, to college, in their father’s L.L. Bean Boots that are 30 or more years old.”
For now, demand is still definitely going strong. After my tour of the L.L. Bean factory, I drove 15 minutes south to the L.L. Bean flagship megaplex in Freeport to see if I could secure a pair of the duck boots. After going through the oar-handle doors, past the manmade lake with fake geese, and past the artificial-rock walkway that’s placed inside for Bean Boot testing, I asked a male store clerk for the signature tan-colored shearling-lined Bean Boot. They didn’t have my size. The clerk said the earliest I could have the boots is January 4th—but that I had better order soon.