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Customer Experience Retail

You get what you pay for: Are low price brands really a false economy?


By Dom Burch, managing director

March 7, 2016 | 7 min read

I recently forked out £200 for a new coat.

This is not the type of thing I am used to doing.

My shopping habit thought process for acquiring new items of clothing usually goes a little something like this...

It's getting colder, I'd better nip to TK Maxx to pick up a jumper, cardigan and new winter coat. Total investment less than £100.

Or, it's getting warmer, I'd better nip to TK Maxx and buy some t-shirts and a new pair of summer trainers. Total investment...

You get the idea. I'm a cheapskate that typically shops twice a year.

My philosophy is why spend money on full priced things from swanky high street retailers when a quick biannual rummage at a discount store will more than suffice.

Having also worked for a low price supermarket, a low price insurance company, and a low price motor breakdown company, it's fair to say I've had a close affiliation with saving money my entire working life.

I've mentioned before I'm the son of a Ballymena man. A proud town in Co. Antrim Northern Ireland, full of people who know the value of money, and who are not in a hurry to needlessly spend theirs.

But I begrudgingly broke the habit of a lifetime recently, and what I discovered has rocked my world. It turns out you really do get what you pay for.

Here's what happened.

I'm on gardening leave from Asda at the moment so I'm at a bit of a loose end.

My wife is working as per usual, and in the midst of setting up a craft project for women refugees in Bradford. My two young kids are at school obviously.

So I've effectively got another career break on my hands, but unlike my last one five years ago, no one to share it with.

I decided to cash in some air miles (why pay for a flight if you don't have to) and go visit a friend who has just landed a new role in New England, USA.

As I was heading to Maine (a two hour drive north of Boston, Massachusetts) in early March I thought I best dress for the occasion.

And at this time of year, according to Google, it's normally a bit chilly in Maine, with eight or nine feet of snow not uncommon.

Cue an additional trip to TK Maxx, until my friend kindly pointed out I should really be buying a coat from L.L.Bean – his new employer.

For those unfamiliar with the brand, L.L.Bean is an American, privately held retailer.

It started out life as mail-order business, but has successfully shifted online, and also has a chain of stores, both in the US and in far flung places like Japan.

It was founded just over 100 years ago by Leon Leonwood Bean in 1912.

The company, currently based in Freeport, Maine, is famous for its no quibble, lifetime guarantee on all its products.

Everyone you speak to about the brand mentions it almost immediately.

The girl serving me in the Irish pub in Portland when I first arrived said: "L.L.Bean? Amazing returns policy."

The lady in my hotel whose friend works for them in customer services retold the story of a man in his 90s who returned a shirt with frayed cuffs, not for a replacement but simply to say how many years of wear he'd gotten from it and how happy he was it had only just worn out.

L.L.Bean sent him a replacement of course. It's the stuff of folklore.

Bean's approach from the beginning was:

“Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they will always come back for more."

He obviously understood the value of a satisfied customer. But at the beginning it almost bankrupted him.

His retail empire began, as many do, as a one room operation selling a single product, the Maine Hunting Shoe (now known as the famous L.L.Bean boot).

Bean had developed a waterproof boot, which was a combination of lightweight leather uppers and rubber bottoms, that he sold to local hunters.

But defects in the initial design led to 90 per cent of the original production run being returned. Bean made good on his money-back guarantee, corrected the design, and continued selling them.

The 'L.L.Bean 100 per cent Satisfaction Guarantee' has been in place ever since.

"Our products are guaranteed to give 100 per cent satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at any time if it proves otherwise. We do not want you to have anything from L.L.Bean that is not completely satisfactory."

L.L.'s philosophy concerning the value of a customer has also withstood the test of time (albeit it dates back to 1912, so I think we can forgive the fact that it is addressed solely to their male customers of the time).

The following definition was apparently a favorite of the founder's and is as critical to L.L.Bean's success today as it was during his tenure:

A customer is the most important person ever in this company – in person or by mail.

A customer is not dependent on us, we are dependent on him.

A customer is not an interruption of our work, he is the purpose of it.

We are not doing a favor by serving him, he is doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to do so.

A customer is not someone to argue or match wits with.

Nobody ever won an argument with a customer.

A customer is a person who brings us his wants. It is our job to handle them profitably to him, and to ourselves.

I like the openness of the last point.

L.L.Bean is a company that makes it clear they are in business to serve customers, but want to do so profitably.

It is often left unsaid, leaving some people to assume if prices are high they are being taken for a ride.

OK, not some people, me.

If I can't easily work out why on earth two items of clothing that look the same, feel the same, can be so far off one another on price, then I cynically feel like I'm being ripped off.

Until now.

It turns out my new, extremely lightweight, stylish jacket, that looks the same as my previous two winter coats from TK Maxx, actually keeps you warm, really warm, and is waterproof too. Were that not enough it tidies away into a little pouch when travelling.

Oh, and should I ever not be 100 per cent satisfied I can return it to L.L.Bean for a replacement.

I've had to rethink my entire approach to bring frugal.

Maybe, just maybe I've been wasting money and falling for false economies all my life.

It's a sobering thought. And one I'm only now counting the cost of.

Follow Dom on Twitter @domburch

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