Enter Minobe, L.L. Bean Japan's personable general manager. As a Seiyu manager in charge of developing the leisure business, he had sniffed the market trends but realized the most suitable partner probably was overseas, where the recreation industry was more advanced. Seiyu approached Matsushita, which devotes an entire company division to seeking international business partners, and the consumer electronics giant scouted out L.L. Bean.
"The reason we valued L.L. Bean was because they put the customer first, and their products are high-quality, functional and reasonable," Minobe said. He added that the firm's policy of a 100% satisfaction guarantee, for instance, or not quibbling with customers who return a product for even minor flaws, was in line with the Japanese philosophy that "customer is king."
L.L. Bean's homespun motto hangs prominently at the entrance of the Jiyugaoka store, complete with Japanese translation: "Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers as human beings and they always come back for more."
To promote the nature lifestyle, L.L. Bean also plans to introduce its much-touted "public outdoor clinics," offering a range of lessons, such as how to repair a bike and cross-country ski, how to tie a fishing fly and backpack.
The firm has the luxury of a virtual virgin market. It is still so new that no one seems sure just how big the market is. Although several other firms offer outdoor wear, including Japanese retailers and the U.S. brands of Eddie Bauer and Northface, for instance, L.L. Bean officials say there are no significant competitors offering the entire range of sportswear, gear and outdoor education.
Public response has outstripped expectation, Minobe said. Although the store anticipated 1,000 customers on opening day, 3,000 showed up; the store added to the festivities by flying in 54-year-old Ralph Dehahn to demonstrate his trade of sewing moccasins by hand. Overall sales are 50% above projections.
To Ayako Nakagawa, 15, and Akari Yamamoto, 16, L.L. Bean's products are "cute and colorful," while 35-year-old trading firm manager Hiroshi Kawaguchi finds them "comfortable, hardy and outdoorsy." Despite the general Japanese image of U.S. goods as shoddy, the two girls said American-made clothes are popular among teens for having better style and selection; Kawaguchi said rough-and-tough goods don't require the exacting quality standards Japanese consumers expect from higher-priced products.
Minobe said families have been the most conspicuous consumers so far, and, taking advantage of the current economic downturn, he hopes to promote camping among more of them. A family of four spending two or three nights at a resort would spend $2,400, but camping in one's own four-wheel-drive would cost only $400, he said.
"Our big aim is to see more families take off in four-wheel-drives and spend quality time between parents and children," he said. "We're promoting a lifestyle not of expensive brand products, but of leisure, latitude and the outdoors."