Like a lot of my fellow Mainers, I’m a fan of Freeport’s famous outdoor retailer L.L.Bean. When I was a kid, trips from Boothbay Harbor to Portland meant driving along Coastal Route 1, a road that then, as now, runs right through the middle of downtown Freeport.
Those familiar with today’s upscale mecca of outlet stores anchored by the sprawling L.L.Bean complex, would be hard pressed to imagine the town as it was in, say 1956. Back then Freeport’s “downtown” was a three-way intersection with a flashing yellow traffic light and a “Flying A” gas station where the attendant would gladly pump your gas and check the oil. There was a restaurant too, as well as a “Five and Ten” store and, of course, L.L.Bean.
For such a popular tourist destination, the original Bean store occupied a remarkably modest three-story wood frame structure. The store’s appeal to “outdoorsy” types may well have been enhanced by the fact that shopping at Bean’s literally required a bit of hiking. Through rain, sleet, wind and snow access to the upper floors was gained only via a wooden staircase on the outside of the building.
Although much has changed at L.L.Bean, one thing that hasn’t is the company’s famous customer satisfaction guarantee. The inventory system may be computerized these days. But the basic promise remains much the same as it was when old L.L. himself was in charge; If you’re not absolutely satisfied, for any reason at all, they’ll replace the item or refund your money. Period. No excuses. No time limit.
I came by my appreciation of Bean’s return policy the old fashioned way: by personally schlepping stuff back to the store. Not a lot of stuff, you understand. Maybe an item every decade or so, and even then only when there was a genuine problem.
Having been raised with traditional Yankee values myself, the notion of returning something for a refund, whatever the reason, holds little appeal. It’s a bit too close to “whining” or to use that most onerous of Maine epithets, being “spleeny.”
On the other hand, old L.L. had his values too. And back then his personality defined the company to such an extent that I got the impression he’d have been disappointed if I had a problem and didn’t bring it his attention.
So, taking him at his word, when an old pair of “Bean boots” sprung a leak I simply brought ‘em back to the store and drove home with a new pair, no questions asked.
That said, the following incident (for lack of a better name let’s call it “The Yellow Rain Slicker Debacle”) involving a raincoat I’d purchased at Bean’s several years earlier might, had it occurred on his watch, have been enough to convince L.L. to rethink his generous return policy.
A well-made, practical garment, my yellow rain slicker had given me many years of exemplary service. So, I decided to treat it to a thorough cleaning. A quick review of the garment care label instructions (obviously composed by someone for whom English was neither, a first or even a distant third language) informed me that, “dry cleaning may be helpful.”
It should be noted here that in strictly grammatical terms the instructions at least inferred that dry cleaning possibly “may not” be “helpful” — in this case, it was an interpretation that turned out to be right on the money.
Responding to an urgent phone call from my dry cleaner, I raced over and made the alarming discovery that my favorite slicker had been magically transformed into a huge, saffron-hued sheet of … what? Fried won ton? Actually, it resembled nothing so much as a “gag” prop from a 1970s Carol Burnett TV special.
Though I’d have much preferred to lob the thing directly into the nearest toxic waste dump, I felt a moral obligation to return it to Bean’s if only to spare future generations of yellow rain slicker label readers a similar fate.
The sales staff did an admirable job of keeping their faces on straight as I proceeded to manhandle the freakishly flattened, outsized yellow slicker through the showroom en route to the exchange counter.
Upon arrival, true to their word (and in record time I might add) the L.L.Bean folks replaced my favorite rain slicker with a similar model free of charge.
I’m happy to report that nearly 20 years later I still have that exact same rain slicker, although, these days it’s more of a muddy mustard color. That’ll happen when you wear the same yellow slicker for two decades without ever once taking it to the dry cleaner.