How L.L.Bean boots became the most coveted item this holiday season

For three years in a row, the L.L.Bean 'Duck' boots have been backordered by the thousands. What accounts for the century-old hunting boots' sudden popularity? 

More than a century after their conception as hunting accessories, L.L.Bean’s signature boots are an unlikely item to be among fashion’s most coveted.

For a third year in a row, the rubber-soled – and not quite aesthetically pleasing – “Duck” shoes are now on backorder. Even after hiring 200 extra workers and purchasing a $1 million rubber-molding-injection machine, the Freeport, Maine, company is still struggling to keep up with demand with more than 50,000 people currently awaiting their order.

So what makes the boots so popular? It’s a mixture of guaranteed quality, the “Sewn-in-Maine” cachet, and its newly garnered air of exclusivity.

Supply shortages are commonplace in luxury fashion because popular brands like Hermès and Christian Louboutin (a different kind of shoe company) control the supply to manipulate the market. By deliberately holding back product availability, such labels render their $800 stilettos and $70,000 purses all the more enticing.

But for L.L.Bean’s $109 boots, its acclaim in fashion is more or less accidental.

Outside the hunting crowd, the two-toned boots have long had a following on East Coast college campuses for their New England brand and preppy appeal. But sometime in 2012, mainstream fashion joined in its rave. InStyle, Glamour, The New York Times, and Us Weekly, among others, all wrote about the shoe, deeming it a must-have of the season.

Around the same time, German sandal company Birkenstock experienced a similar sartorial renaissance when every fashion blogger in New York or Paris was suddenly spotted sporting a pair of the unglamorous but comfortable slip-ons. The company, however, was unfazed. Its marketing budget remains “close to nothing,” the Wall Street Journal reported in May.

L.L.Bean's current list of backorders is steep, but it’s only half of the backlogged demand last year. In fact, after hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts rushed to get their hands on a pair of the boots last winter, the company couldn’t clear the backlog until July.

“This is in some way a nice problem to have, in the sense that you have a 103-year-old product that’s selling off the shelves like hot cakes, and yet we have customers who are on back order who are disappointed,” L.L.Bean’s chief executive, Chris McCormick, told the Boston Globe.

“That doesn’t sit well with us.”

McCormick himself doesn’t fully understand what’s driving the demand, but he isn’t making haste in meeting it. L.L.Bean could easily outsource the labor and manufacture the boots in Asia, as most mid-range American shoe retailers have done. Operation costs would be cut and the demand would sure be met.

But to McCormick, that’s not an option.

“It would be terrible,” he said. “We would never do that.”

After all, the boots were invented by L.L.Bean founder Leon Leonwood Bean himself. Desiring a dry and comfortable pair of shoes suitable for the backwoods of Maine, he got the idea to stitch the bottom of a rubber workman’s boot to a leather upper.

Since then, the Duck boots have been made in Maine and nowhere else.

The company operates two factories, with one in Brunswick where 300 people work around the clock to churn out 2,200 pairs of shoes a day. Most of the shoe components are handmade, taking between 45 minutes to an hour for each set, and go through eight worker stations.

In this sense, the appeal of the Duck boots isn’t that much of a mystery – it’s a matter of quality.

“You mess up, you’re going back to square one,” Cindy Morse, a 21-year Bean veteran, told Forbes magazine in April.

But despite the high standards and the skyrocketing demand, employees aren’t complaining. In fact, L.L.Bean ranked fifth on Forbes’ list of America’s top employers and first in the retail category.

At the end of the assembly line, it is Steve Paone’s duty to inspect every boot before it is shipped. If a stitching is even a few millimeters off, he tosses it.

“L.L.Bean is a great quality product,” he said, “I take a lot of pride in it.”

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