Businesses mix with pleasure to increase community presence

| Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 9:35 p.m.

Don Ziegler had wanted to try something new for quite some time.

“I sail, but I've never kayaked before,” said the active Oakmont resident, 72.

Ziegler stepped into a kayak for the first time recently at North Park Lake in McCandless, where he took a $20 course run by outdoor products seller L.L. Bean Inc.

Participants in the company's 1½-hour kayaking outings use L.L. Bean-provided equipment while learning basic paddling techniques and safety skills.

Instructors are employees of L.L. Bean's Outdoor Discovery School.

“I really enjoyed that,” Ziegler said of the program. “I thought it was very good exercise. … I'm really considering (buying a kayak).”

L.L. Bean, which offers free and discounted activities through its Outdoor Discovery Schools, and other businesses are appearing more frequently on community event calendars these days. Their educational programs go a step beyond writing checks to sponsor local programs, providing opportunities for employees to meet and work with local residents who might turn into customers.

Marketing experts call the classes and workshops a form of corporate social responsibility.

Businesses have been growing more socially and environmentally conscious for years, but a new trend is for top retailers to get their employees involved with the public outside store settings, said Daniel Korschun, an assistant professor and marketing fellow in the Center for Corporate Reputation Management at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

It can be a good way to expand a customer base, he said.

Home Depot offers free home improvement classes at libraries and the retailer's Team Depot, an employee-led volunteer program, does free renovation projects at veterans' facilities, schools and other sites.

Drug store chain Walgreens offers free digital photography classes at libraries. And Best Buy led a no-cost “Technology Petting Zoo” in June at Western Allegheny Community Library, where members of the famed Geek Squad answered visitors' questions about the latest smartphones and other electronic devices.

Best Buy's store in Robinson was the first in the Pittsburgh region to host a petting zoo, said Chris Fisher, Geek Squad manager there.

The store plans to schedule more, he said. But success isn't being measured in sales.

“We're not really tracking whether that's turning into a sale or not,” Fisher said. “That's not our initial goal.”

The main goal of corporate social responsibility programs shouldn't be profit-making, said Angeline Close, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who conducts consumer research.

Of course, companies that connect with communities' passions can reap benefits, she said. Consumers go out of their way to buy goods and services from them to show appreciation.

Freeport, Maine-based L.L. Bean has an Outdoor Discovery School at each of its 18 U.S. stores, spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said. The local school is linked to the store at Ross Park Mall.

The primary motivation for running Outdoor Discovery Schools isn't financial, she said. But consumers do appreciate events that provide expertise in sporting activities and products.

“In response, you are going to look to us for being a resource for the product,” she said.

Chris Kelley, 35, had planned to buy a stand-up paddleboard for his wife, Lindsey Kelley, 34, for her birthday. After the Middlesex couple took part in a free L.L. Bean demonstration at North Park Lake this month, Chris Kelley bought a $1,000 paddleboard from the company, his wife.

“We ended up going to the store right after that. The same day,” she said.

Beem said L.L. Bean's community outreach once consisted of making donations to conservation groups near its stores. But six years ago, the company transitioned to partnerships that match an organization's needs with goods and employees' expertise, and to partnerships that help get children and families outdoors. Classes in fly casting, hiking and biking are offered.

Some Whitehall Public Library patrons attended a no-cost faux painting class taught by Home Depot employees last fall, said Deborah Rampolla, adult services coordinator for the library. The technique involves using paint to make a surface look like wood, or marble.

The library appreciates cash donations from businesses, but visitors also appreciate hands-on sessions where they can learn new skills.

“It's a great community partnership because it takes members of the community and these wonderful, sometimes large, organizations and it brings everyone together doing something they enjoy,” Rampolla said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or

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