Grand Opening 1962
Doctor Emmett Brown, the Delorean-driving time traveler in the Back to the Future series, upon learning that a particular date in time is playing a crucial role in history, tells young Marty McFly:
"It could mean that, that point in time inherently contains some sort of cosmic
significance. Almost as if it were the junction point for the entire space-time
continuum. On the other hand, it could just be an amazing coincidence."
Fifty years ago last week a fellow named Sam opened the first store in what would eventually become the largest, most important and most impactful retailer in the history of the business. That was, of course, Walmart, and whatever difficulties the company is having these days with flat domestic business and international ethics issues, there's no denying that Walmart made the entire world a different place.
But here's the most fascinating thing about what happened in 1962: Walmart was one of only four major retailers to debut that year, an unprecedented and frankly cosmically near-impossible confluence that even old Doc Brown would have trouble comprehending.
Walmart's rollout in 1962 was joined by the first stores for Kmart, Target and Meijer's Super Center. Together those four stores totally changed the dynamics of the retail world in ways that are still being played out five decades later. And while those of us in the industry know these four operations well, let's take a minute to really recognize what they've done.
Walmart is the most influential retailer in the world. It has forever changed the supply chain management process in worldwide commerce and it has conditioned the American consumer to expect to pay less for something than they did last time. I don't think you can underestimate how critical that change in thinking has been to American culture.
Kmart, despite its current sad shape, was the largest retailer in the country for much of the latter part of the last century and while it's hard to believe looking at its stores now, it was once a leader in fashion in both apparel and home. The Martha Stewart program of the 1990s was unquestionably the largest and most important private label program ever in home furnishings.
Target invented a new model that simply didn't exist before, combining the physical layout and buying power of a discounter with the fashion merchandising savvy of a department store. No one has done it better or more consistently anyplace else.
And Meijer's, the smallest and certainly most low-key of these four operations, was truly the first American retailer to combine general merchandise and food under one roof, taking a page from the hypermarkets of Europe and creating the template that is now the foundation of the Walmart empire.
The early 1960s were a time of great change in America: John F. Kennedy, the suburbanization of the population, the Beatles, the Beetle, the first stirrings of social change in women's rights, civil rights and human rights and Vietnam, among other things. But you have to add the revolution that was going on in retailing to that list of changes.
The year 1962 was when we started going back to the future.