May 23, 2018
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Trendy Japanese ‘mountain girls’ are boosting LL Bean’s overseas sales

By Lori Valigra
Updated:

The inside of a Japanese L.L.Bean store may look much like any U.S. store, but outside, customers including trendy “mountain girls” are turning their purchases into weekend escapes from their city jobs.

Many customers, following the government’s push over the past few decades for hard-working Japanese to cut down on long hours, also are taking time off for outdoor activities with their families.

That’s benefiting L.L.Bean’s Japanese stores at a time when its U.S. parent’s sales have been flat. In Japan, where the company operates its only overseas subsidiary, L.L.Bean is growing by tapping these local trends and Japanese demand for both high-quality and foreign goods.

“I’ve seen a shift since the 1990s for Japanese workers to take more family time and do light hiking,” said Zane Shatzer, the company’s managing director of Japan and Asia Pacific. He met with the Bangor Daily News at the company’s Freeport headquarters during a recent trip back from Tokyo.

While many of the family customers are aged 30 to 50, there are trends like the “yama” or “mountain” girl, where single young women hike on weekends and do other outdoor activities, he said.

Yama girls tend to like trendy clothes, while “mori,” or “forest,” girls like to dress in plain clothing and walk through the woods to take in the peace of nature. And “oji,” or “cute old grandpa,” girls wear classic American- and British-style men’s clothing, including Bean Boots.

A broader trend that includes all ages is “shinrin-yoku,” or “forest bathing.” A type of nature therapy, it involves walking or exercising in the woods to purify yourself. Typical clothing consists of comfortable hiking shoes, an active shirt, hiking pant and a lightweight backpack.

These trends all are increasing sales of outdoor wear, as is the traditional Japanese gift-giving culture, especially on special holidays like Golden Week, which occurs in early May.

Not all of L.L.Bean’s products are for sale in Japan. It does not sell kayaks and other equipment because small Japanese homes and apartments don’t have space to store them, so they’re usually rented, Shatzer said.

Japan as a growth opportunity

With 27 stores and two more scheduled to open this year, L.L.Bean International, based in Tokyo, is growing at a rate in the mid-single percent range, Shatzer said. He would not reveal exact revenue, nor how much of the total L.L.Bean business Japan sales represent.

“We’re an important part of the business,” Shatzer said. “Japan is a big growth opportunity. We’re investing in new stores and system infrastructure,” including customized e-commerce systems for Japan.

The privately held parent company’s sales have been flat the past several years at around $1.6 billion, and there have been employee buyouts and layoffs. In February, it announced the end of its unlimited return policy, citing the financial toll on the company.

In stark contrast to some of the backlash L.L.Bean faced in the United States when it changed the return policy, Shatzer said he saw no complaints in Japan, where returns are generally rare.

However, L.L.Bean is expanding, having just opened a store in Boston, its 35th U.S. store outside Maine. It plans to open four more stores this year, giving the U.S. operation 39 stores outside Maine by year’s end, not counting outlets, compared to 29 stores in Japan. It has five stores on its Freeport campus.

Of L.L.Bean’s 5,500 employees, 350 are in Japan. Each Japanese store, at 3,500 square feet, is about one-fourth the size of the average U.S. store.

L.L.Bean also has a catalog and online business in Japan, a call center and a warehouse.

“We are one of the pioneers in the catalog business in Japan. But there has been a rapid migration to the web and to phones,” Shatzer said. About half of the company’s Japanese sales are from stores and half from e-commerce.

It also has an L.L.Bean Bootmobile, which took to the streets of Japan in April 2017. L.L.Bean’s third bootmobile, it runs on a Toyota Hilux pickup truck instead of the Ford F-250s used stateside and is 20 percent smaller to fit on narrower Japanese highways.

Bean stores find a ready market

L.L.Bean opened its first store in the trendy Jiyugaoka area of Tokyo in 1992 via a licensing and distribution agreement with Japanese retailer Seiyu and logistics company Matsushita. The company already had a mail-order catalog business since the 1980s, but all the sizes were for Americans and the prices were in U.S. dollars. When business boomed, it decided to set up its own stores, Shatzer said.

Most of the customers at the Jiyugaoka store were Japanese, showing it had reached the local market and moved beyond the expatriates, said Hideki Hashiramoto, senior manager of merchandising and creative for L.L.Bean International in Tokyo.

“Ninety-nine percent of the customers were Japanese,” he said.

Shatzer remembers that when the store opened, Japanese people waiting to get in already were dressed head-to-toe in L.L.Bean clothes.

L.L.Bean made its first foray into Japanese sizes in 1999, with clothes sized to suit the generally shorter torsos, narrower shoulders and shorter arms of local shoppers, Shatzer said. Colors also tend to be more conservative, with dark blue, black and gray preferred. And up to 70 percent of customers pay cash, as credit cards are not popular in Japan.

At the end of the 1990s, when the Japanese economy slowed and the yen currency strengthened, L.L.Bean decided it was more profitable to sell direct and established L.L.Bean International, a wholly owned subsidiary.

The stores in Japan are either free-standing or in malls, with the exception of L.L.Bean products sold through a collaboration with BEAMS Japan. That store sells a custom L.L.Bean Boat & Tote bag in the fashion-forward Harajuku area of Tokyo. The canvas totes, which are white, evergreen or dark blue, are made in Brunswick, where all the other Bean totes are made. BEAMS also sells custom Bean Boots in burgundy, dark green, tan and powder blue colors.

“It’s about the simplicity and purity of the design,” Shatzer said. “And everyone in Japan commutes on trains, so it’s a good opportunity for our Boat & Tote bags.”

While the BEAMS collaboration has helped get L.L.Bean’s name known, Shatzer said the Japan operation is focusing on its stores and online sales more than on developing new collaborations.

All clothing in the stores is made in the United States and shipped to Japan. That puts a premium of 10 percent to 20 percent on the sales price of Japanese items, Hashiramoto said. Japanese people ordering online get free shipping if they buy items totaling 5,000 yen ($45.55) or more, comparable to the $50 minimum the company imposed on free shipping for U.S. customers. Shipping for orders under 5,000 yen is 550 yen ($4.56).

Competitors include The North Face and Japanese brand Montbell, which Hashiramoto said cater to hard-core outside activities, and Columbia and Patagonia, which like L.L.Bean, cater to a more casual outdoor lifestyle, including hiking.

L.L.Bean previously had about 30 small stores in China that were located within larger retail stores, but it’s no longer pursuing the Chinese market because of limited resources, Shatzer said. The overseas focus is on Japan, though the Freeport company has a catalog business in Canada.

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