I dropped $250 on new X-country ski bindings and boots this weekend. That's a ton of dough to me. And since I haven't bought ski equipment in 20+ years, the purchase destination was pretty much a jump ball. I might be more overtly reflective on this kind of decision than the average bear, but most people have a complex subconscious approach to non-routine purchases. Their decisions reflect their personal values at a level that great brands know how to serve.
Let's start with the reasons for the purchase. First, below is a picture of me a week ago, at the point when my old cross country boot totally separated from the sole, on the shores of Lake Champlain. I shouldn't be smiling as I had no idea how I was going to travel miles back to my car without a functional ski set-up. (My clever friend Jill figured out how to use her gator and my boot laces to lash my foot to the ski.)
Here are the broken boots:
Here is the reason why I was feeling urgency to get back in gear for the season:
Ski Market closed recently, so I had no known ski store supplier in mind. I did a quick Google search and was reminded of a cute little local store in the next town, and it looked like they could service my skis. So I called to confirm.
(Me) "I have a really old pair of skis. The boot upper separated from the sole. They have that three peg style. I know that type is ancient and probably not available anymore, but can you replace my whole set-up?"
(Guy on phone) "No."
(Me) "Hold on. I know I can't get these kind of boots. I mean that I want to replace the boots and bindings all together."
(Guy, sounding rushed on a probably busy Sunday) "I dunno. 50/50 chance I can fit you." (Silence.)
(Me, thinking, "Are you not at least a little interested in my business?") "Well I would really like to buy from a local store. Can you get me set up and then order my size if you don't have it?"
So I get off the phone and Googled:
Five minutes before I was all righteous and eager to avoid a chain store, and then I remembered the good old Bean. How they once let me return a set of luggage I'd used many times because I just didn't like the weight of it. How they always hire knowledgeable and friendly people. And I vaguely remembered a service and repair area in the basement. However I also thought, "But are they really SKILLED at X-country skis? Or is this just the I-don't-know-where-else-go choice of a rushed and ignorant consumer?
So I called. The store phone was tied up so I got bounced to a call center person, who could not address my ski service question. But the telephone woman persisted, and dialed on an internal company line to try and raise the local store staff. She got me directly to a store specialist who explained their whole ski service process, and that I might have to leave the skis because their main mechanic had just gone home, but that they could give me a good steer if I wanted to come in.
So I set out to the Bean, but on the way I saw:
It was newly situated in a former Tweeter store, halfway on my route to L.L. Bean. I sharply cut into the parking lot and signed off from what I thought was going to be a longish call to my mom, promising to call her in an hour or so after I fixed up my skis. But I couldn't go in the place.
Why? It was a vague discomfort with the faux German spelling of the name, an ugly logo on a cheap sign on an ugly building, a woman entering the store who looked unhappy and stressed, a sense that this was a "tweener" retailer: not local, not a trusted chain, and I had never heard of them. Basically all really thin and "bad" reasons, but I could not get comfortable with the Ski Haus. Being short on time, this was a somewhat painful decision for me. But I just didn't want to risk the pending disappointment I sensed. (And I still don't know if it is THE place to buy skis in Boston--not being on that circuit myself.)
I surprised my mom by calling her right back, having gotten back on the road to L.L. Bean.
At the Bean doors, I remembered all my positive associations with the brand. Old Leon himself. A design school assignment to redesign their catalog cover template. The concerts they sponsor at their Freeport, Maine HQ every summer. The spacious aisles and the climbing wall in the store. My very effective waterproof Bean jacket I wore for a 96 mile hike in the Scottish Highlands. I really had no previous sense of being some die-hard L.L. Bean fan, so why did this all this good vibe stuff come flooding at me? It was one simple thing: the sight of the door handles made of miniature canoe paddles:
It's probably a pain to maintain those unusual door handles. I bet they need regular replacement. But getting me to put my hands right on the most romantic "On Golden Pond" aspects of the brand is pure genius. I am so "there," before I even get in the place.
Fast forward to the end. I got swift help from a knowledgable guy who set me up with some futuristic looking boots. He shocked me when he said, "OK give me five to fifteen minutes to do the job. These old skis can be tricky to balance, but they are worth it." Me: "What? On the phone they told me that the mechanic went home." Turns out this sales associate has been servicing skiis for seven years. He said he reckoned the guy on the phone did not want to risk disappointing me, so thus did not promise immediate service if I showed up.
Talk about surprise and delight. L.L. Bean turned a bad start (the call center transfer) into a big purchase, (and a blog post), on a number of consistent points of great execution. I always say brands are built brick by brick but they can fall apart and tumble down with just a few blows or weak cracks. It's refreshing to rediscover L.L. Bean, a brand that knows how to maintain its "mortar."
And, voila: my shiny new boots!