Saturday, February 24, 2018


A major shift in Maine's fifth largest (and my former) employer occurred in early February. L.L. Bean announced that their 106-year-old "satisfaction guarantee" was generally limited to one year from purchase or to those holding a receipt. Resulting news was featured in local, regional and national media. A contributing New Yorker writer from Maine,Ian Crouch, wrote "Even if it seems to have failed as a business model, L. L. Bean’s return policy was treasured largely because it reflected the values and characteristics that we like to celebrate in ourselves and each other as Mainers, ones that we may not always live up to but to which we might aspire—traits like honesty, good nature, and a mind-your-own-business ethos in which asking someone to explain himself is tantamount to calling him a liar." Working at L.L. Bean was a right of passage, a common thread shared across all walks of life. The company builds its brand on Maine's beauty and rural character and had a great reputation for treating its employees well.  
Taking old slippers back was the worst part
of the job at Customer Service.
(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) 

When I grew tired of the relentless and repetitive work at L.L. Bean's cash registers, I asked to be trained in Customer Service. The complexity of using multiple inventory systems seemed intriguing, and the esprit de corps of the team was strong. Just a month after I started the new position, management instituted "special conditions" into the return policy. These reasons to refuse (change in size for both children and adults, personal family reasons such as death, moving, divorce and accidents) were stealthily introduced. Signs disappeared overnight and new language appeared on the website. The customer service department explained the "clarifications" with every person as they placed their questionable item on the counter and responded to the reason for the return.  

Customers reacted. Anger, indignation, resignation, and "it's about time" were common. Dismay and disappointment resulting in tears or aggression were occasional but memorable. People lied. A man commanded the returns area with a loud treatise of "I bought this under the old policy and you should honor it" and was so determined to get his way that he escalated up three levels of management before finally left in a blaze of umbrage. The "clarification" of the policy seemed to be an affront to those who had scammed the system in the past, and now their annual "I want a new backpack." jig was up. 

As the line wound through the cordons of the stuffy cave, I would see people waiting and begin to fear the conversation that would ensue. I was always relieved to see the familiar green shipping bag that indicated an easy transaction. A woman arrived at my station, three girls under 10 years old in tow, and placed a pink sweater, with a small hole under the arm, on the counter. It was sized for an infant, and last sold in 2008. Then came the Red Wing work shoes of a style not seen since the 70's, a brand we had never sold. I could sense her desperation mounting, realizing her plans were dissolving with my response. She tried to retain a brave face in front of her daughters. I sensed that maybe things were not great at home; Christmas was coming. Her last item was acceptable for return and she went on her way with a gift card.  

As the media blitz has faded in the scope of recent news, I suspect that the conversations at Customer Service are much different. The end of the return policy is both a cultural and business shift for the company, and for Mainers. It was good while it lasted but now its no longer. Now, we wait to see how the pending class action suit resolves itself.