The Beginning, and the End of Wal-Mart?

By Don McAlavy: Local Columnist

Sam Walton was born in Kingfish, Okla., on March 29, 1918. He graduated from the University of Missouri in 1940. From there he began his career by opening the first of several Ben Franklin franchises in Arkansas. Finding that he couldn’t manage these franchises as he thought best, he gave them up and sought greener pastures.

In the northwest corner of Arkansas, he opened his first Wal-Mart in the rather small town of Rogers. In his retail store his idea was to charge low prices for his merchandise and that soon became a model for all his Wal-Mart stores to follow. “Sell name-brand merchandise at low prices,” he said.

Only a few people know how officials in the first Wal-Mart store (1962) learned to handle money that went to the bank. Opal and H.E. “Shorty” Baldridge moved to Rogers, Ark., in 1948. (”Shorty” Baldridge had graduated from Clovis in 1929).

Opal loved to tell this story:

She was working the drive-in window at the bank. The manager of the first Wal-Mart brought the money in a paper bag and put it in her drawer at the drive-in to deposit. They had not sorted bills nor change, and did not have a total. Opal prepared their deposit and gave them instructions on how to make deposits. (Opal died at 94 on Dec. 9, 2005, in Walhalla, S.C.)

Wal-Mart had more than 300 stores in the 1980s and more than $1 billion in sales. In 1991, Wal-Mart was the largest retailer in America with 1,700 stores.

Sam Walton was active in the company as CEO until 1988 and was the chairman until he died in 1992. He received the Medal of Freedom. Walton was the world’s second richest man (Bill Gates the richest) when he died. He handed down the company to his three sons, daughter and wife. One of his sons took over as chairman of the board.

Wal-Mart’s success was mainly due to the discount concept. Frank Woolworth, in 1879, made his Woolworth stores that covered America, the original giant retail empire, as Wal-Mart is today (this information from Bob Batchelor of the History News Service). Other discount stores failed because they didn’t adopt technological innovation quickly enough or because they pursued ill-advised diversification projects.

The problem that sunk Woolworth executives was they couldn’t imagine that Kmart would upend their company. Kmart never really viewed Wal-Mart as a threat in the 1960s and 1970s. Will there be a retailer that can out-Wal-Mart Wal-Mart? The answer is probably yes, reported Bob Batchelor.

“Looking back at the history of discount shopping in America, it’s easy to visualize a line from Woolworth’s to Wal-Mart. Today’s discount retailers use the same methods Woolworth pioneered. They build stores in prime locations, squeeze distributors and offer low prices. Wal-Mart has mastered its gargantuan supply chain and used its size to force vendors to cut their prices. Technological innovations have driven down overhead. Savings have then been passed on to shoppers. Wal-Mart’s high-tech infrastructure is the real engine driving the company’s revenues. The economy goes as Wal-Mart goes,” said Bachelor.

“Will Wal-Mart do something visionary or risk eventual extinction as did Frank Woolworth’s great innovative retail enterprise? It’s not unreasonable for the world’s largest company to aspire to be its most compassionate. That might make Wal-Mart a place where people would want to work — and love to visit again,” ended Bachelor.

Wal-Mart came to Clovis with groundbreaking on Jan. 10, 1985, with the event of North Plains Mall.

Some items from Sam Walton’s 10 Commandments of Retail: Share your rewards, deliver more than you promise, work smarter than others and blaze your own path.