It's a package? No, it's a bus! And how L.L. Bean marketed itself (successfully) in the city

Hailing from Maine, I can attest that at least for us natives, L.L. Bean is truly a way of life. Bean free ship

Bostonians, on the other hand, are a more cosmopolitan crowd – not exactly who you’d imagine as the retailer’s prime demographic.

But the Freeport, ME-based outdoor and lifestyle brand decided to broaden its potential appeal with a rather unorthodox (at least by Maine standards) promotion with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). To publicize its free shipping policy, L.L. Bean wrapped ten MBTA buses to look like packages and offered free rides on those buses from March 28 to April 2.

Passengers on these select routes were especially caught off guard during their frenzied Monday morning commute. As one boards and reaches out to pay the $1.50 fare or swipe a Charlie card, they see that the farebox is disguised as a parcel and have no choice but to put their fare away and enjoy the free ride. LL Bean Bus

Bean shelled out a total of $216,000 for this opportunity, approximately double what those ten buses would collect in fares in a typical week according to The Boston Globe. The cost broke down to $180,000 for the free ride promotion and an additional $36,000 to keep the buses wrapped for a full month.

Is this a worthwhile investment? Will the free shipping policy resonate with Boston consumers and leave a lasting impression?

Think about it. Not only are the buses mobile billboards on some of the MBTA’s most visible bus routes, but the passengers who are greeted with the pleasant surprise of a free ride, courtesy of L.L. Bean, are likely to be grateful and chronicle the novel experience for other people. And let’s not forget all of the media attention and the fact that what Bean is promoting – free shipping – is not a tough sell to consumers.

In fact, according to Compete’s latest Online Shopper Intelligence Survey, 82 percent of consumers report that free shipping would encourage them to purchase more products online.

Retailers like Zappos.com that have a standing offer for free shipping and the bevy of websites sharing free shipping coupon codes illustrate the consumer appetite for free shipping, but will this promotion and others like it drive sales up enough to cover the company’s shipping expenses and prove profitable? The industry will be watching closely, as L.L. Bean very well may be an online retail bellwether.

Contributed by Anne Norris. Follow her @anne_norris.