Is a Manufacturing Backlog a Blessing Or a Curse?

bean boots sitting on the stairs

“Why Can’t L.L. Bean Keep the Darn Duck Boots in Stock?” asked a Bloomberg Business headline earlier this year when it was revealed that L.L. Bean’s infamous backlog of their eponymous shoes seemed to echo their 2014 trajectory.

If you’re not one of the 100,000 people who ended up on a back-order list for the boots last year, you may not be familiar with the story, and may even wonder why this is a question: Who cares if some fancy boots are taking too long to make?

Here’s a little backstory for you. In 2014, a surge of popularity led to an exponentially increased demand for the Maine-made boots. L.L. Bean spokesman Mac McKeever said that some of the increased demand was driven by fashion trends, but told NPR that the boots simply had a broad appeal.

“These boots have always been popular with outdoorsmen—traditional outdoorsmen—and hunters and loggers and farmers, but they’ve seemed to garner favor in the fashion industry as well as with young folks, college campuses, folks from the cities. Obviously it’s a welcome surge in popularity for us,” he said.

While it was a welcome surge in popularity, the company had to hustle to fill manufacturing positions, upgrade equipment, and increase the shifts at their Brunswick, Maine, factory, where each boot was made by hand. The company explained that they had spent some time fulfilling orders from the previous year and ended up investing a million dollars to purchase a second injection molding machine to make the rubber soles. Spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said that talent was tough: “It’s not a skill set you can turn around on a dime because it’s about a six-month training period to be a boot builder.”

The company ended up with a 100,000 person waitlist, and is on target to make a waitlist once more this year. According to analysts, like Michael Silverstein at Boston Consulting group, the surplus and manufacturing backlog is actually a shrewd move. Rather than overcompensating, the company continues to produce their shoes in America and establish the boot as a must-have item. “It’s very successful because it tells the consumer that you can’t wait to buy it tomorrow, you have to buy it today.”

Bean isn’t the only company with a substantial manufacturing backlog. According to Forbes, at the end of 2014, Boeing had a backlog of 5,074 airplanes, equivalent to seven years of production. However, this backlog will only benefit their order inflows as air traffic increases and demand heightens. Rather than exposing the company as “behind” or “inefficient,” the value of the plane that’s eventually produced is more dramatic than ever. Value rises, and so does Boeing’s profit margin.

However, there’s a fine line between backlog and just plain poor efficiency and lean manufacturing practices. For many manufacturers, backlog isn’t the optimal solution, and can be frustrating and detrimental to customers. However, it can also be a strategic move to make that product more exclusive, desirable, and romantic than ever before. We’re all for it, but we’re still waiting on those Bean Boots…

Have you ever experienced a significant manufacturing backlog? If so, leave your comment in the section below: We want to hear your story!

photo credit: Bean Boots via photopin (license)