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  • Jennifer Marks

The student teacher

Forty years ago when Sam Walton threw open the doors of the first Wal-Mart store in Rogers, AR, he quietly inaugurated a new era in modern American retailing. Although it took nearly two decades before the "Wal-Mart influence" created noticeable ripples across the retail pond, its impact has grown increasingly profound with each passing year and shows no sign of abating in the near future.

The Walton principles have been steadily imitated, emulated and adapted by others — sometimes to their benefit and sometimes to their ultimate detriment. There is, however, one practice of Mr. Walton's that seems to have been largely abandoned in recent years, not only by the company he founded, but also by others who aspire to Wal-Mart's scope and profitability levels: making it a point to rub shoulders with others in the industry and to see what's out there worth knowing about.

Sam Walton famously considered himself "a student of retailing." His curiosity was as legendary as the amount of energy he poured into searching for the next great idea. It's ironic that today's leading retail companies, despite all they have borrowed from his philosophy, are increasingly insular in the way they conduct their business.

We now see fast-growth, high-volume companies that don't come to markets or attend trade shows. Or they attend sporadically, zipping through a show one year, skipping it the next.

They no longer turn out for industry gatherings, conferences or award programs. After all, where is the ROI in kibitzing?

That's a point of view that would not have sat comfortably with Sam Walton. Did he show up at every event he was invited to? Certainly not. But he was a great advocate of community-building within the retail industry, and where he chose to participate he was renowned for doing so with gusto — very often bringing along a team of future leaders in the process.

Granted, the world has changed since Sam Walton's day. But consider this: When ill health forced him into retirement from day-to-day activities in late 1991, he was running a 1,500-unit company doing $44 billion in sales. Do you know how many retail companies today are larger than that? Just three: Home Depot, Kroger and Wal-Mart.

The conventional wisdom now holds that it is inefficient for a company of any considerable size to send its associates swarming all over the place in search of newness, particularly when its big pencil attracts all the majors to its doorstep anyway. I would argue that it is precisely companies of such scale that are best equipped to send their people out into the world (since they have more of them). If nothing else, it is one tool that can be used to combat the numbing uniformity that can become the Achilles heel of any large company.

If markets, trade shows and industry events are inconsequential to the work already being done with key vendor partners, so much the better. That leaves more time to seek out vendors one hasn't yet seen, yet heard of, or dealt with for a while.

Yes, it's been 40 years since Sam Walton opened his first store, but much of his philosophy remains valid — and, in fact, Wal-Mart managers are still encouraged to confront challenges by asking themselves "What would Sam do?"

The question still deserves consideration.

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