L.L. Bean: Modernizing the IT architecture at a 105-year-old retailer

About L.L. Bean

L.L. Bean, founded in 1912, is a privately held, family-owned apparel and outdoor equipment retailer. The company launched its e-commerce site in 1995 and operates stores and outlets across the United States and in Japan.

Industries: Retail
Location: United States

About Fearless Technology Group

Fearless Technology Group helps retailers modernize their technology architecture, solve critical business problems, and capitalize on business opportunities in an evolving landscape.

L.L. Bean modernized its IT infrastructure by moving capabilities from its on-premises systems to Google Cloud Platform, improving customer satisfaction and IT efficiency across multiple sales channels.

Google Cloud Results

  • Improves customers’ online experience with faster page loads and transaction histories
  • Enables focus on delivering customer value, rather than managing infrastructure
  • Supports rapid delivery of cross-channel services by cutting feature release cycles

Helps deliver an omnichannel retail experience

Freeport, Maine-based retailer L.L. Bean is as famous for its boots as its mail-order catalog, which dates back to 1912. The family-owned company has 51 stores, kiosks, and outlets around the United States. Its e-commerce engine is particularly robust, accounting for $1 billion of the company’s $1.6 billion in annual revenues.

Like many retailers, L.L. Bean is embracing omnichannel sales by reaching out to customers across multiple channels—print, brick-and-mortar stores, website, app, and social media. Delivering a positive omnichannel retail experience has become essential for large retailers today, as 73% of consumers use multiple channels when shopping, according to Harvard Business Review.

“We didn’t want customer experience to be limited to a specific channel. We wanted them to experience L.L. Bean as a dynamic, innovative brand, regardless of the channel.”

Randy Dyer, Enterprise Architect, L.L. Bean

Two years ago, L.L. Bean set out to improve its omnichannel experience. “We didn’t want customer experience to be limited to a specific channel,” says Randy Dyer, Enterprise Architect at L.L. Bean. “We wanted them to experience L.L. Bean as a dynamic, innovative brand, regardless of the channel.”

In practical terms, L.L. Bean wanted to remove as much friction as possible from customer transactions, whether it’s offering e-commerce pages that load quickly on mobile or desktop devices, or quickly providing long-term customers with their extensive purchase histories on demand.

But in its drive toward agile, cutting-edge omnichannel experiences, L.L. Bean faced a considerable hurdle. Different, loosely connected IT systems—some of which had been in use for 20 years—supported each of the retailer’s customer channels. While the systems shared some similar capabilities, they relied upon separate applications that performed in their own way.

Much of the retailer’s IT system consisted of on-premises mainframes and distributed servers, an environment in which upgrading clusters and nodes was overly cumbersome. “The company wanted to leverage the cloud for new capabilities, faster time to market, better online performance, easier upgrades, and the ability to give customers more capabilities,” says Peter Brumblay, Cloud Architect for Fearless Technology Group, a retail technology consultancy hired to help L.L. Bean modernize its IT architecture.

Achieving those goals with the retailer’s on-premises IT system would have been too cost-prohibitive, Randy adds. So, L.L. Bean turned to Google Cloud Platform to help modernize its IT system. Google Cloud Platform has helped the company integrate data from multiple sources and systems; handle peak website loads more efficiently and cost effectively; innovate and deliver new online features to customers faster; and improve its website and mobile experiences.

“Unlike the enterprise version of the other container solution L.L. Bean tested, Google Cloud Platform offers a pay-as-you-go licensing model that doesn’t require a large capital outlay.”

Chris Cummings, CEO and Founder, Fearless Technology Group

Streamlining upgrades and software

In partnership with Fearless Technology Group, L.L. Bean’s IT team experimented with containers, which provide a dedicated virtualized environment for applications to run in. After researching available options, the team decided that Kubernetes, Google’s cloud-native, open source system for containerized applications, would best meet their needs.

“We really liked the capabilities of Kubernetes and the direction it was going,” says Randy. “We looked at where we could get Kubernetes in the cloud, and we were very happy with what we saw with Google Cloud Platform.” Google Cloud Platform includes Google Kubernetes Engine, an open source-based managed environment for deploying containerized applications. L.L. Bean already had a successful relationship with Google, via Google AdSense and its paid search products.

“Google Kubernetes Engine has significantly streamlined the process of upgrading nodes and masters. By comparison, upgrading even minor releases of another container solution that L.L. Bean tested resulted in the need to rebuild that solution’s clusters four times,” says Randy. Additionally, L.L. Bean would have had to apply more people time to manage the clusters that Google Kubernetes Engine handles in the background.

The seamless integration of Google Kubernetes Engine, with Google Persistent Disk, the block storage for Google Cloud Platform, was another benefit, as it was key in getting new software development up and running quickly.

In addition, the cost of the solution better mapped to the company’s short- and long-term goals. “Unlike the enterprise version of the other container solution L.L. Bean tested, Google Cloud Platform offers a pay-as-you-go licensing model that doesn’t require a large capital outlay,” adds Chris Cummings, CEO and Founder for Fearless Technology Group.

“We won’t have to pay for peak capacity to have it available during peak shopping times. We just scale capacity up or down as needed.”

Randy Dyer, Enterprise Architect, L.L. Bean

Scaling as needed

L.L. Bean plans to use Google Cloud Spanner, a fully managed relational database service in Google Cloud Platform, to solve some of its database scaling challenges.

The retailer’s Product Availability service must take constantly streaming updates on inventory positions that flow from multiple back-end data systems. At the same time, the service must handle continuous requests for available inventory as customers place orders on the front-end. “Because Google Cloud Spanner is a horizontally scalable and ACID-compliant database system, it can handle the heavy volumes of concurrent writes and reads and is a great fit for this application,” says Randy.

The ability to quickly scale capacity to meet changing usage patterns, such as during holiday shopping, as well as to rapidly perform load tests to test capacity, are “night and day” with Google Cloud Platform compared to L.L. Bean’s legacy on-premises IT system, says Randy. “We won’t have to pay for peak capacity all the time like we used to, to have it available during peak shopping times. We just scale capacity up or down as needed.”

Speeding up online experiences

In partnership with Fearless Technology Group, L.L. Bean has six development teams migrating applications to the cloud. Two teams are moving all llbean.com pages over time into a new web architecture dubbed Front-End Architecture (FEA), which is based on React. This new customer-facing architecture runs entirely on Google Cloud Platform. All applications supporting the FEA are to be deployed as containers with Google Kubernetes Engine, with the goal of completing the vast majority of the project during fiscal year 2018.

The teams have already migrated the llbean.com homepage, category pages, and specialty product landing pages to the FEA. The result has been significantly faster webpage renderings. In turn, that’s translated into lower bounce rates for those pages, and customers are less likely to get frustrated by slow load times and click off the site after viewing only one page.

“When you can get customers to click through to other pages, you’ve got a much better level of engagement, and ultimately, that feeds into customer conversion opportunities and direct revenues from customer acquisitions,” Randy explains.

Showing long-term customers their detailed, lengthy purchase histories is another way that Google Cloud Platform is helping L.L. Bean be more responsive to its customers online. “Because of the complexity of our legacy IT system, that data comes from multiple sources and it gets integrated in real time,” says Randy. “Plus, we decided to increase the amount of history we kept for our customers.”

As that data volume started growing, and as more customers accrued longer histories, those queries became expensive to deliver and unsatisfying for users to experience. For example, lengthy customer history queries would sometimes timeout on the L.L. Bean website. Today, the company is automatically pre-aggregating purchase history data from multiple sources and storing it in Google Cloud Platform, eliminating timeouts and providing much more consistent response times to customers.

“With Google Cloud Platform, we can run experiments, learn from the results, and deliver new capabilities into production much faster.”

Randy Dyer, Enterprise Architect, L.L. Bean

Building new capabilities

With Google Cloud Platform, teams have much more automation at their disposal, such as automated build processes and testing, resulting in greater development efficiencies. “With Google Cloud Platform, we can run experiments, learn from the results, and deliver new capabilities into production much faster,” says Randy. The company’s IT teams are able to move to an agile software development approach, enabling them to react quickly, deliver more capabilities in a shorter time frame, and continuously innovate.

For example, the Front-End Architecture team was looking for a lightweight tool to test network load balancing. The team chose Locust, spun it up in a container, spun up a swarm of workers (which are a type of node), and were performing automated load tests within two weeks. With Locust successfully containerized, the Product Availability team started using it to test their inventory services—and added their own functionality to it as well.

The two teams were able to build capabilities they didn’t have before, quickly and efficiently, thanks to the flexible architecture in Google Cloud Platform. In the past, adding a new functionality often required developing within a rigid, eight-week release cycle. But the development practices enabled through Google Cloud Platform allow teams to deploy new features whenever they’re ready to go.

There are plans to employ the FEA for internal user-facing systems, too. “We plan to share the technology base as much as possible, to leverage what we’ve done and bring consistency to things like the website and call center operations,” Randy explains.

Building a customer driven IT system

Storing customer and other data in the cloud can keep some IT people awake at night with worry. But Randy says L.L. Bean’s teams appreciate Google’s end-to-end security model which was built into Google Cloud Platform from the ground up. L.L. Bean also layered its security best practices and tools onto the platform to help ensure that data is safer, highly secure, and audited.

Over time, L.L. Bean will transition completely to a microservices architecture deployment. The goal is to move application services away from legacy on-premises systems, extract the functionality out of all its separate customer-facing systems, and reposition them as shared application services running as container deployments on Google Cloud Platform.

“The shift to Google Cloud Platform is helping us stay competitive in the rapidly changing retail landscape. With the help of Fearless Technology Group, we’re doing a lot of cool stuff these days with the cloud, agile practices, and containerized applications.”

Randy Dyer, Enterprise Architect, L.L. Bean

L.L. Bean is experimenting with other Google Cloud Platform services, including Google BigQuery and Google Cloud Dataflow as the foundation for a marketing data analytics platform, and Google Cloud Pub/Sub for event handling. The long-term strategy is to continue building a multi-cloud IT architecture, giving the retailer the flexibility to add and integrate components from other systems as needed. Google Cloud Platform and Google Kubernetes Engine will serve as the foundation, especially (but not exclusively) for its customer-facing systems.

It was clear that L.L. Bean’s legacy on-premises system was only going to constrain its ability to be innovative and responsive going forward. At the same time, there’s been an overall company-wide effort to modernize.

“The shift to Google Cloud Platform is helping us stay competitive in the rapidly changing retail landscape,” says Randy. “With the help of Fearless Technology Group, we’re doing a lot of cool stuff these days with the cloud, agile practices, and containerized applications that are improving our speed to market and helping us deliver a better customer experience—regardless of sales channel.”

About L.L. Bean

L.L. Bean, founded in 1912, is a privately held, family-owned apparel and outdoor equipment retailer. The company launched its e-commerce site in 1995 and operates stores and outlets across the United States and in Japan.

Industries: Retail
Location: United States

About Fearless Technology Group

Fearless Technology Group helps retailers modernize their technology architecture, solve critical business problems, and capitalize on business opportunities in an evolving landscape.

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