The Universal Notebook: The companies you keep

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Over the years, I have sometimes been accused of being anti-business. As a progressive, I tend to favor labor over management, the common good over corporate profit, cooperation over competition. But there are some companies I love despite myself.

I am spoiled, of course, by having a spouse who works for L.L. Bean. Not only do they treat Carolyn extremely well, they treat their customers extremely well. In fact, Business Week recently rated L.L. Bean the 2010 Customer Service Champ across all sectors of the U.S. economy, though you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the scant notice given the honor in the local press. I guess we’re all just so used to L.L. Bean providing outstanding customer service that it isn’t news around here., one of the companies I love, was No. 7 on the Business Week list last year, but fell off the list entirely in 2010. Not sure how that could be. As it happens, by virtue of having written a thank you e-mail to Zappos last week, I was recently made a Zappos VIP, which means I get free overnight shipping on all the shoes I order. Of course, you don’t necessarily have to be a Zappos VIP to get free overnight shipping. Sometimes you get it whether you ask for it or not.

I first discovered Zappos when daughter Tess was going through soccer/lacrosse cleats at $100 a pop every season. When I ordered a pair from Zappos, I was first amazed to find that shipping is free all the time. Then I was amazed when the cleats arrived the next day even though they had only promised four- to five-day delivery. And I was even more amazed when I had to ship the cleats back (again for free) because they didn’t fit and received a pair in the right size the very next day (again for free). I have been doing business with Zappos and telling friends about them ever since.

In fact, that seems to be the secret of Zappos success. Free shipping is their primary marketing tool. Customers are so pleased with the service that Zappos hardly has to advertise. Word of mouth from happy customers has turned the online shoe dealer into a billion-dollar business, one purchased for $850 million by

At Christmas, we purchased a pair of Frye boots for Tess. We found them on the Frye Web site, but when Frye wanted $25 to ship them to us, I logged on to Zappos, purchased them for the same price and got them shipped free. I then sent Frye a note letting them know that Zappos was eating their lunch.

Speaking of lunch, one of the other companies I love is Trader Joe’s, the California alternative grocery chain now considering a move into the former Wild Oats store on Marginal Way in Portland. I can’t wait. Trader Joe’s was No. 18 on the Business Week Customer Service Champs list last year, but, like Zappos, didn’t make the cut this year.

I am not among the Maine customers who joined a Facebook group devoted to persuading Trader Joe’s to come to Maine, but I have e-mailed the company from time to time suggesting that Portland would be a great market for them.

Whenever we go to Lexington, Mass., to visit Carolyn’s sister and her family, we always make a trip to one of the local Trader Joe’s. We have even been known to take a quick trip to Peabody, Mass., where the nearest Trader Joe’s is located, just to buy cheap organic coffee, tea, wine, bulk nuts and various ethnic goodies, all things I could buy (albeit more expensively) at Whole Foods if I could stomach the conservative politics of its owner, John Mackey. (See The Universal Notebook, Aug. 9, 2009.)

I do have some trepidation, however, over my affection for Trader Joe’s. I like to think it’s still the laid-back, hippie-dippie, surfer bum outfit it once was, but since 1979 it has been owned by two of the richest men in the world, Theo and Karl Albrecht, reclusive German supermarket barons of unknown political persuasion.

I’m really looking forward to a Trader Joe’s in Portland, but I’m not sure I want to know too much about the Albrecht brothers.

Sidebar Elements

The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.