LL Bean sales grow despite weak economy

Associated Press
FILE - In this March 8, 2012 file photo, a jogger passes by the entrance to the L.L. Bean retail store in Freeport, Maine. L.L. Bean says sales grew 5.5 percent over the past year despite a mild winter weather that hurt sales of skis, coats and other outdoor gear for which the company is known. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

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PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Battling a sluggish economy, L.L. Bean saw a second consecutive year of revenue growth and could've done even better with a little help from Old Man Winter, the company said Friday.

Sales for the outdoors retailer grew 5.5 percent over the past year, the company said. And sales could have been stronger if the fourth-warmest winter on record in the continental U.S. hadn't eaten into sales of skis, coats and other outdoor gear for which the Freeport, Maine-based company is known, a spokeswoman said.

"When you have a winter that was as dramatically unwinterlike as this one, then it has does have a definite impact on the business," spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said.

L.L. Bean's revenues were $1.52 billion for the privately held company's 2011 fiscal year, which ended last month. The year before, revenue was $1.44 billion.

The company, now in its 100th year, struggled with back-to-back declines in 2008 and 2009 after the recession hit. But it bounced back in 2010, and built upon that in 2011.

In 2011, L.L. Bean and other retailers took advantage of pent-up demand in the apparel sector, which staged a comeback as customers who'd been delaying purchases because of the economy began opening their wallets, said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners in New Canaan, Conn.

The warm winter didn't hurt L.L. Bean as much as it would've in years past because the company has expanded its product lines, Johnson said.

While L.L. Bean missed its internal sales goal for 2011, the company ended up near its pre-recession sales of $1.6 billion, Beem said. The performance was good enough for a 3 percent employee bonus, which was approved Friday by the company's board of directors.

The fact that L.L. Bean expects to reach or surpass its pre-recession revenue levels in the coming year is another indicator that consumers are coming to life, and that bodes well for the economy in general, said Charles Colgan, an economist with the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service.

"The consumer has got to start spending again if we're going to get some kind of economic growth," Colgan said.

L.L. Bean's health is important to Maine.

The company has 5,000 full- and part-time employees, making it one of the state's biggest employers.

Founded by Leon Leonwood Bean in 1912, the company is offering 100th anniversary commemorative products, including a special version of its iconic Maine hunting shoe. But even with those special products, and L.L. Bean's popular no-strings free shipping, the company sought to downplay projections for 2012.

In a memo, President and CEO Chris McCormick told workers that progress in 2011 was "modest" and that the company will be adopting another conservative budget in the coming year.

"As we head into another year of economic uncertainty, we have adopted a conservative budget, maintaining a tight control on expenses coupled with plans for only modest growth," he wrote.

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