Hey, LL Bean! – You Aren’t Louis Vuitton Either

by Bill LaPierre on October 16, 2016

About 20 years ago, I was invited to the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC to consult on their catalog. I walked into a big conference room filled with about 20 people.  The creative director for the catalog ran the meeting.

He announced that they were planning a full redesign of the catalog and wanted my input.

Now, keep in mind, we are talking about the National Geographic catalog, which in my mind, is fairly similar to the magazine. I have always felt that you could not get much more middle-of-the-road, average American household than the National Geographic magazine. According to Wikipedia (always a reliable source), they have 6.8 million members/subscribers. Even George Bailey mentioned them in It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie made 70 years ago! The National Geographic is as all-American as apple pie, hot dogs at the ballpark, and fireworks on the 4th of July.

And so, what “brand” did the Creative Director want to emulate with his proposed redesign of this iconic All-America catalog? “We want to be like Louis Vuitton”. (He even pronounced Louis Vuitton with a really annoying phony French accent).

As I recall, my initial reaction was something along the line of “What the hell are you thinking?”   The meeting deteriorated at that point, with half the room saying “told ya’ so” and the other half saying “but we have to change”. The company I was representing at the time did no further consulting to the National Geographic.

I bring this up because a month ago, I started getting emails from clients, friends and readers of this blog asking if I had seen the latest catalog from L.L. Bean. I’m sure most of them are wondering why it has taken me four weeks to comment on it here.


If you did not receive a copy, it is physically quite impressive, and certainly nothing like anything Bean has mailed before (or, at least not to me). It is a very large trim size (9 x 10), 324 pages, and perfect-bound. From a content standpoint, it also is not your average LL Bean catalog. Ninety percent of the photos are lay-flat silhouettes, with very few models (I counted less than 20 model shots in the entire book). The copy blocks are about the same as would be found in a traditional Bean catalog, but because there is (mostly) one product per page or per spread, the copy looks “minimalist” in comparison to what you are accustomed to in a Bean catalog.

To be honest, the book has me puzzled. It reminded me of an H&M catalog for grown-ups. Based on the number of people that contacted me, Bean must have carpet-bombed most of New England with these things. It certainly does not appear it was mailed to a selective audience of LL Bean credit card holders (which my wife and I are).


They are obviously “making a statement”. A very expensive catalog branding statement. I’m sure that internally, the PR team is using words like “cool and contemporary” to describe it.   But what are they trying to do?

I read this spring that LL Bean had hired a new Chief Brand Officer, a Brit with lots of retail and consumer goods experience, but I saw no mention of any catalog experience. Couple this with the fact that LL Bean hired a new CEO last year (only the 4th CEO in 104 years), and in my opinion, you’ve got two guys that are in a rush to make some changes, and apparently, the bigger the better. I’m certain that they also told the existing staff in Freeport, who collectively have hundreds of years of catalog experience, that they (the two new guys) knew what was best when it came to designing a catalog, and branding LL Bean. (We’ll see how well that works.)

It is obvious that with this one catalog, LL Bean is trying to retro-fit their brand and image to appeal to millennials. Of course, everyone I heard from that had received the catalog was over 50 (I think you are all over 50, and I apologize to any of you who that have yet to reach that milestone).

As one of my readers described it “The higher ups at Bean are not listening to their core customers. They are all thumping their chests and trying to compete with Pokémon Go for millennials’ face time.”  Of course, they are using a print catalog to try to reach an audience for whom print may not resonate.

Moreover, much like National Geographic, LL Bean is one of those iconic brands that have survived for 100+ years by being loyal to their roots, loyal to their heritage, and loyal to their customers. (LL Bean actually has a style-guide for how their copy is to be written, which draws heavily on the fundamental philosophy of the original Leon Leonwood Bean, who I’m sure is spinning in his grave at the moment.)

I’m always concerned when I see a catalog making changes that just seem totally out of character.  Sure, brands have to change and evolve. But that is why I waited a month to see what else came along from Bean this season. I have received two subsequent catalogs from them, both of which are typical, average LL Bean catalogs.  So the “behemoth” appears to have been a one-shot deal. A “coffee table keeper” for their customers and a folio-sized gift from heaven for LL Bean’s printer.

Plus, the book reverses every initiative that Bean has made in the past few years – and which I have applauded – of having smaller books, and driving people online to see their product. There are some (but not many) call-outs in this behemoth to “go online to see more styles and colors”. But why would you? This catalog is meant to give the impression of being the most comprehensive, omnipotent bible of LL Bean products ever assembled. What could possibly be online at LL Bean.com that would be of any interest if it were not already shown in this book?

Finally – and this is most important – the catalog is ugly. Really damn ugly. And boring. It is not aspirational or inspirational at all. It’s like an office supply catalog, and when was the last time you were motivated by receiving one of those?

There is no warmth or charm to this catalog. There were two photos with some children playing by themselves. But no families, no family fun. No Christmas trees, or little Maine fishing boats. Of the few model shots with women, most of them had that “No I don’t smile and I don’t want to be here” look found in high-end women’s fashion catalogs.

Although it baffles the imagination as to why they would do this, maybe the new leadership at LL Bean felt compelled to “remove the shackles” of the past 104 years and go after a different audience. But do you do that with a catalog? Not if you believe that people are using mobile phones to shop. Do you appeal to a younger audience by creating a stark, “anti-LL Bean looking” LL Bean catalog? Probably not if you want to keep your existing customers.

This behemoth from LL Bean is your typical “let’s change creative” effort by non-catalog professionals, who don’t understand or appreciate that changing merchandise is the only thing that will appeal to a new generation of buyers. We’ve all seen this play out before in Plano, TX and Dodgeville, WI – you would think that someone would be paying attention.

LL Bean has been the leader in so many great ways in cataloging. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote in this space the following “LL Bean is not a Datamann client, but I look at them as an example of 100+ year old catalog company that has evolved to keep up with changing times. In my opinion, one of the seminal moments in the history of cataloging occurred in 2011 when LL Bean decided to offer free shipping on all orders, all the time. I’m sure they did not want to go down that road, but they did. They changed their business model without fundamentally changing their product – which is after all what customers are buying. I’m not going to list all the changes that I’ve seen them make, but they have been considerable. I’m sure things are not perfect at LL Bean, but on the surface, they seem to be adapting as best as can be expected for a company with such a long tradition of relying on a printed catalog.”

But this 324 page beast is just a huge, dumb, expensive mistake. Their existing customers were not calling in demanding an encyclopedia of products with all the excitement of the phone book. Even great brands are allowed to make a mistake once in a while. The next time the guys in Freeport want to make a statement, maybe they will focus on developing some innovative new products rather than creating an ugly coffee-table showpiece with all the romance of a Staples catalog.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



2016 Holiday Catalog Observations – Part 1

by Bill LaPierre on October 9, 2016

As we start to rev up to high gear for 4th quarter catalog sales, and the election, let’s take a look at where we are.

Current Catalog Sales:

Based on what I’m hearing from clients and other mailers, response was soft to very soft in September, and continues to be so in October. We do have a few clients that are above plan, but most are not. Above all else, response is determined by merchandise – if the consumer sees something that they absolutely want, they will buy.

But, what am I hearing from all of you? “It’s the weather – too warm in September.” “It’s the election.” Oh, come on! How many of you can honestly say that you witnessed a precipitous drop in sales on Sunday night because of Donald/Hillary Round 2? And no, I don’t think Hurricane Matthew did much to distract the consumer.  Admit it, unless you lived within 100 miles of the coast where the storm hit, by Saturday afternoon you were pretty sick of watching those guys from the Weather Channel getting rained on. Yes, there was damage, but the country did not  stop to watch.

I’m not going to speculate on why sales and response are soft because I’d be guessing. But I did read an article over the weekend that the NFL is concerned that TV viewership is down by 20% for the first four games of the season. The NFL is blaming the “unprecedented interest in the Presidential election”. (Sound familiar?)  This excuse just doesn’t seem possible to me. I suspect that football fans seek refuge from the election hype by watching an NFL game.

But here is what I really liked – several “industry analysts” noted that the NFL has continued to place more and more “football content” on digital networks, which causes a negative hit to TV viewership. (Sound familiar?)

The consumer only has so much discretionary time to watch football. If you start broadcasting games on Twitter, as underwhelming as the audience numbers might be right now, don’t expect network TV viewership to rise or even stay flat.

Likewise, the consumer only has so much discretionary money. You know you are losing market share to online companies – almost every catalog is losing to at least Amazon. If you did not build that shrinkage into your plans, no wonder you aren’t meeting the plan numbers.

Increasing Margin:

Let’s revisit something I wrote last year (click here) when I mentioned that Miles Kimball was selling their spinning Angel Candle Carousel for $5.99, while Vermont Country Store sold the exact same product for $24.99. I was less concerned with the fact that VCS was gouging their customers (apparently they get away with it) than I was with the lost gross margin opportunity which Miles Kimball faced.

Fast forward 12 months. Mile Kimball’s 2016 catalog now has the same product for $12.99.  Assuming they still have the same cost of goods, they just more than doubled their gross margin.


Plus, I love how they added the call-out for “$12.99, compare at $24.99!” Obviously they may not sell as many at more than double the price. But the consumer probably still sees value in this product at $12.99 and there will still be sales. I’m sure they will ultimately make more overall profit at the higher gross margin.

I have several clients with gross margins that are too low. They constantly tell me that they can’t simply raise their prices overnight. Maybe you can’t do that on all your products. I sense that most catalogs won’t do this because they are afraid of lost demand. The folks at Miles Kimball are foregoing that conventional wisdom, and raising their prices to capture more GM dollars, and still manage to be half the price of VT Country Store. Good for them! The rest of you should take note.


I love both Cabela’s and Bass Pro, so I hope the marriage goes well. I have never bought from Bass Pro, but did visit their flagship store in Springfield, MO and I have to tip my camouflage hat to them – they know how to create a shopper experience.

This brings me to my brother, who is not a sportsman. He collects riding lawn mowers and tractors. He has never set foot in either a Cabela’s or Bass Prop Shop store, nor ordered from their catalogs.  But he needed to get something for his wife’s kayak, and went into the Cabela’s near his home, where he discovered that Cabela’s now sells tractors.


He was impressed – enough so that he spent about 20 minutes talking about them. He’s even going back to look at them again. This is an example of how companies extend their customer reach to new audiences by extending their product range. Cabela’s must recognize that a majority of their customers own sizable tracts of land – and could use a “machine” such as this.

My point is this – how many of you developed entirely new product categories this year, that were completely outside your current product assortment – but that had a tangential affinity to your customer’s needs? How many of you simply added more products in categories that your customers are tired of seeing? Still wondering why sales are soft in October?

Adding new product categories is one way that you grow. It’s not by testing another co-op.

This Is Why We Have a Talent Drain…

I received the following email last week from a reader, responding to my posting about Datamann’s next catalog seminar in March 2017. It speaks for itself.

Hi Bill,

Loved your blog post today, and LOVE Kevin Hillstrom’s idea of working through a simulation at the seminar. I wanted to go anyway, but I will definitely be bringing a junior analyst with me if this is the topic. 

You asked at the beginning of your post how we are doing with the new customer acquisition tactics we learned at the March 2016 seminar. Thought you may appreciate this.

We  wrote up a list of 10 initiatives we would like to test in 2017. Almost the entire list came from the seminar or were brainstormed off of concepts learned in the seminar. For 3 of those 10, we did some back of the envelope P+L statements, just to show the massive opportunity.

None of those 10 initiatives have been agreed to even be tested in 2017. Instead, the senior team put forward only one initiative to be tested in 2017 to grow the business: more order level discounting. *Cue the film of us banging our heads on the table*

It should not be a mystery to you why talented staff, especially our younger staff, are leaving the catalog industry if the above scenario rings true for your company too. None of us are perfect – but if you have an environment which simply kills all attempts at innovation, don’t be surprised at the consequences.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



What is missing, is not metrics…but how we react to metrics

October 2, 2016

Today is a pivotal day. Six months have passed since Datamann’s seminar on Customer Acquisition. Coincidentally, today starts the all-important 4th quarter. I know that all of you who attended that seminar last spring are watching the results of your new customer acquisition programs – especially those efforts that don’t involve the co-ops, retargeting, or […]

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Understanding Premium and Affordable Luxury

September 28, 2016

Timing is everything. I almost looked like a genius on Monday. I had a blog posting already to go on why I thought Federica Marchionni, CEO of Lands’ End, was not going to last much longer. But, at the last minute, I decided to substitute my posting on the Marine Layer catalog (click here if […]

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If You Have This Much Contempt for Catalogs…

September 25, 2016

If you have this much contempt for catalogs and for your customers, why even bother? For those of you that have grown tired of me ripping apart yet another poorly conceived start-up, yuppie/millennial-inspired catalog, you can skip today’s posting and still get a passing grade at the end of the semester. For those of you […]

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Catalog Consultants are Like Tomatoes

September 18, 2016

Back in 1967, when I was 10, my father took me to my first auction in Rindge, NH. The auctioneer was named Ed Stevens, and if Norman Rockwell had wanted to paint the quintessential taciturn New England auctioneer, he would have picked Ed Stevens.  I was mesmerized. Ed died in 2011 at the age of […]

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In Good Company at The Smithsonian

September 14, 2016

In early 2015, I reported that I had been asked by Paul Miller, Vice President and Deputy Director for the American Catalog Mailers Association (ACMA) to help with a special project for the Smithsonian Institution regarding an exhibit being installed at the National Postal Museum (which is part of the Smithsonian) in Washington, DC. When […]

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No One Follows Through

September 11, 2016

I conducted a merchandise analysis earlier this year for a client on their Holiday 2015 catalogs. Response to their spring and summer books this year was soft. The marketing manager immediately said “We need to do another catalog merchandise analysis.” My response was, “Why? I already gave you all the tools you need to determine […]

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Value or Not?

September 5, 2016

This posting started out being about how to extend the life of a product, but changed in mid-stream, which you will see… Labor Day is over and as my grandfather would say, time to put the storm windows and snow tires back on. So, let’s take a look at a perennial favorite catalog of mine, […]

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Things That Matter

August 28, 2016

OK – summer is almost over.  There’s one more holiday weekend coming up before we get down to the serious business of Fall and Holiday sales, and the Presidential election.  Oh, what a fun 12 weeks lay ahead. So indulge me this chance to go off track a little. This week marks my five year […]

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