Challenging L.L. Bean's Return Policy
Long before ATM machines, returning L.L.Bean gifts meant fast cash, 24-hours a day, for one cash-strapped Maine teen.
But don't wear them for too long, as the "exchange" I'm referring to isn't from gift giver to recipient, but from recipient to returns department.
Bean is world-famous for its lenient return policy and, perhaps shockingly, the company is good for their word. Indeed, relatives who work in customer service there tell me it's the number-two thing that callers are surprised about (the number-one thing is the answer to the question, "are you really in Maine?")
So it was something of an annual tradition in high school to return our L.L. Bean Christmas presents a few days after unwrapping them. This was not a knock on the company's fine clothes so much as an adherence to two truths: teenagers don't like having other people pick out what they wear, and teenagers (generally) do not have a lot of money.
But there was that one winter in which my friend and I did not receive any L.L. Bean's presents. Of course, we could not let this stop us from getting our haul at the returns desk. After all, what would the seedy pool halls of Central Maine - or other worthwhile charities - do without our annual donations?
Not to be outdone by reality, we came up with the solution of raiding our closets for old Bean clothes, and to parlay those into cash. Given the repute of Bean's return policy, this scheme was not necessarily a terrible idea - until one considers that we didn't have enough money for gas to drive from Waterville to Freeport and back, and figured we'd use the cash we received to gas up the car. If this wasn't dumb enough, we opted to leave at about 11 p.m. and test the 24-hour doors-open policy of the store.
As a young boy, I was strangely fascinated by the notion of the L.L. Bean store late at night. I imagined you had free reign to ride the bikes around the store, ski down the stairs, stuff like that. I had also heard a rumor that John Denver was seen shopping there late one night, so the wee hours were when the celebrities started coming out. "Excuse me, Harrison Ford, while I bike past you on the left!"
The reality is that L.L. Bean, like any other store that is open all night, is really more depressing than anything else. Sure, it's nice to be there when tourists aren't swarming the place like ants on a dropped ice-cream cone. But the overhead lights accentuate the emptiness - and the fact that you should be home in bed - to a jarring extreme that almost makes you miss the crowds. And perhaps I'm overly sensitive, but I can't enter a place of business after midnight without feeling bad for the employees there.
This dreariness set the tone for the rest of the excursion. Perhaps this is obvious to everyone but us, but Bean won't actually give you cash on the spot for a 6-year-old, worn-out, receipt-less sweater. It's also strangely difficult to feel bad for employees who refuse to cut you some kind of deal, even if you are firmly the one who is in the wrong.
So we went back out into the cold, got into my father's Ford Tempo, and pulled on to I-95 for the 40-minute return trip, fueled by under an eighth of a tank of gas and a prayer for a Christmas Miracle.
And for a while, it worked. We made it up to the Augusta region with the needle on the gas gauge having barely made its descent to E, and we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. That's when the thumping noise began.
"Did you hit an animal?" my friend asked.
I shook my head. The thumping persisted, well past the point where something - a chunk of ice, perhaps - could have gotten stuck under the car. I reluctantly pulled over. Sure enough, we had a flat tire.
We opened the trunk to retrieve the spare tire and the jack, only to find that we had the former but not the latter. This was in the stone age of the mid-1990s, and we did not have a cell phone. So for about the fifth time that evening we did what we thought was sensible but really was the opposite of sensible. We sat in the car, with the heat and radio on, and waited for a state trooper to pass by.
I-95 outside of Augusta at 1 a.m. does not exactly yield a long line of headlights. We sat for fifteen minutes and didn't see a car. But we were running the battery down and couldn't wait forever. I knew the nearest rest stop was probably within a mile, and decided to make the trek.
The walk was a little like something out of a post-apocalypse movie - the eerie quiet of the post-blizzard landscape, the empty highway, the snow drifts that went up to my waist, the hungry wolves (just kidding). I made it to the payphone, dropped my quarter in, and called my father. The conversation no doubt went something like this:
"Hello, Dad? Yeah, we're kind of stuck here. We need you to get out of bed, drive to Augusta, and make sure you bring a jack and a tank of gas. Probably some jumper cables, too. Thanks. Yes, I know I'm an idiot."
A father now myself, I look at my baby and imagine what kind of karmic payback is in store for me when he becomes a teenager. But I also wonder how it will compare to the bad karma accumulated when you try to abuse L.L. Bean's generous return policy. Mess with it at your own risk.
Robert Benziker is a displaced Mainer longing to return to the Pine Tree State. A writer and editor, he doubts he'll find work at L.L. Bean after this confession of his holiday habits.
- By: Robert Benziker