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Outdoors Instruction Good Business At L.L. Bean

September 3, 1995

BRUNSWICK, Maine (AP) _ Jason Rand was minutes into his introduction to kayaking when his craft flipped, leaving him upside down and underwater, frantic for air.

``When I first went over, it was like panic. Then I remembered what you were supposed to do,″ said the 18-year-old, recalling the advice he received from instructors.

Rand held his breath and pulled away the kayak’s skirt, then slipped out of the cockpit and stood, soaking wet, in the waist-deep water.

He finished the class without incident, along with 12 other kayakers who, within an hour, glided with ease around the 100-yard-long pond used by L.L. Bean for its beginner paddling classes.

It was another introduction to the world of the outdoors by L.L. Bean. More than 125,000 people have participated in Bean’s Outdoor Discovery School since its introduction 14 years ago.

For L.L. Bean, the Freeport outdoor equipment and apparel retailer, the program is good citizenry and good business.

The participants learn a healthy, family sport. And many will end up in L.L. Bean’s cavernous 24-hour retail store five miles away in downtown Freeport purchasing their own kayaking gear.

Leon Leonwood Bean _ the original ``L.L.″ _ would be proud. Back in the 1930s, Bean had a private pond in Freeport where he would allow his customers to test the latest fishing gear.

The tradition continues in the Outdoor Discovery School nearly three decades after Bean’s death.

``It’s really taken on a life of its own,″ said Catharine Hartnett, an L.L. Bean spokeswoman. ``The goal is to expose people to activities and show them the right way and the safe way to do it.″

Besides kayaking, there are classes for mountaineering, backpacking, fly fishing, canoeing, bicycling, archery, shooting and orienteering. In the winter, there are cross-country skiing classes.

The classes help Bean distinguish itself from mail order competitors and cultivate a relationship with customers, said Jeanne Munger, a marketing professor at the University of Southern Maine.

The technique _ called ``relationship marketing″ _ is used by companies like Saturn, which treats car buyers like family, and Ben & Jerry’s, which shows a commitment to social causes.

``If they hit the hot buttons of the consumers, that can lead to more loyalty on the part of consumers,″ she said. ``That’s developing a relationship instead of keeping it transaction-oriented.″

Cultivating the relationship for Bean falls into the hands of instructors who teach classes at night or on weekends. The instructors on a recent night at White’s Beach were John Bradbury, a computer network administrator, and Bob Myron, who works in the retail store’s camping department.

With a mix of humor and skill, the instructors quickly had their students lined up in formation like a bunch of whirligigs as they ran through the basic paddle strokes.

The students looked even more awkward, 15 minutes later, when they climbed into red and yellow kayaks for the first time.

Within an hour, as the crickets began chirping and the sky darkened to dusk, the neophyte paddlers ranging from teens to a great-grandmother seemed at ease as they flitted effortlessly across the pond.

``I’m really impressed,″ said Bradbury. ``You guys are really doing a heck of a job.″

For the final 15 minutes, the group practiced ``wet exits,″ a concept Rand stumbled upon when his kayak flipped. The paddlers must be able to get out of the kayak if it capsizes.

One by one, the paddlers flipped their kayaks, then emerged from the water to the cheers of their classmates.

One participant, Julie Bergeron, said she expects to buy an all-purpose kayak, which costs about $1,000, from L.L. Bean at some point in the future. Besides the cost of the kayak, the paddle and other accessories add up to another $500 to $700.

``In a pure business sense, you are introducing people to outdoor activities in areas where we sell products. We’re stimulating new customers,″ Hartnett said.

But that’s not necessarily the view of the instructors. Bradbury and Myron see themselves as teaching fitness, enjoyment of the outdoors and environmental stewardship.

``Our goal here is to help people enjoy the outdoors. That’s our primary mission,″ said David Mention, assistant manager of the Outdoor Discovery School. ``We want people to be responsible users of the outdoors.″

The outdoors program is subsidized by the retail store. The fees paid by participants _ $30 for a two-hour kayak course _ don’t cover the costs of instructors and equipment.

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