Tuesday, July 3, 2012

July 2, 1962 - The First Walmart Opens

Ben Franklin could’ve had it made. I’m not referring to the “founding father”, of course – the one Americans will honor tomorrow, he of the long hair and granny glasses, kites, keys and lightning bolts, Almanacks and The Saturday Evening Post. I mean the famous variety store chain that borrowed its name from ol’ Ben, the “Ben Franklin 5 and 10 cent stores” that dotted communities nationwide for a big chunk of the 20th century.   

Samuel Moore Walton of Bentonville, Arkansas was far and away one of Ben Franklin’s most successful franchisees. Starting with a lone store in Newport, Arkansas in 1945, by 1962 he had 16 profitable stores in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
In addition to being an unusually savvy retailer, Sam Walton was a researcher - a true “retail scientist.” An idea sponge. His laboratories, in this case, were the pioneering discount stores of the Northeast – Korvette, Ann and Hope, Mammoth Mart and others who by the late fifties were sowing the seeds of a full-scale retail revolution that would bloom within a few short years.  Walton saw the enthusiastic response to these exciting stores and saw no reason why their concept couldn’t be duplicated in the rural towns of the South, areas that were primarily served by small chain stores and mom-and-pop shops. In many places, even those were few and far between.
Having formulated his ideas and drawn up his plans, Sam did the loyal thing – he flew up to Chicago to meet with the execs of his franchisor, Butler Brothers, the parent company of Ben Franklin. There, he mapped out his discount store concept in great detail, covering all of the key aspects – the larger stores, the plethora of departments, the everyday low prices, the streamlined distribution model whereby Butler would do most of it themselves, eliminating the costly middlemen wholesalers. Then he offered it to them - lock, stock and barrel - if only Butler would be willing to carry the plans out. They told him to stuff it, so to speak.  
Rejected, he returned home to Bentonville, and on July 2, 1962, fifty years ago yesterday, he opened the store pictured above – the first Walmart store, in nearby Rogers, Arkansas. (The photo itself is circa 1970. The “Discount City” sign was added shortly after opening, a tagline they used for over three decades.) Not long after the first store opened, the Butler brass traveled to Rogers and saw firsthand the favorable customer reactions. They pulled Walton aside and told him “Don’t open any more of these Walmarts”, lest he jeopardize his relationship with their company. His exact response isn’t recorded, but through his actions Walton essentially told them to stuff it. So to speak.
Within four years, there were five Walmarts, and by 1980 there were nearly 300. Today, the company has over 9,000 stores internationally and they are the undisputed King of Retail. Best I can tell, no one is even vying for the crown.   
Here is the grand opening ad for that landmark store, boasting 22 departments! (And some way-cool specs!)

For those interested in learning more about the Walmart story, let me commend to you the fine book pictured below. “Mr. Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America’s Richest Man”, written by former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor Karen Blumenthal  and published last fall. I was able to help Karen source some photos for the book, and she very kindly sent me a copy. Written for the “young readers” market, it’s an intelligent, entertaining, well-illustrated biography that will definitely appeal to adults with an interest in retail history and/or modern-day commercial culture.  
Walmart books (with the exception of Walton’s autobiography “Made in America”, an essential read) tend to fall into one of two categories – the “fawning over Walmart” group or the “Walmart as scourge of humankind” group.  Blumenthal takes a very balanced approach, and “young readers” notwithstanding, gives a great amount of historical detail and insight into the events and personalities that shaped the company. Importantly, the book doesn’t shy away from the controversies of recent years. It’s a very satisfying look at an important historical figure.    

11 comments:

  1. Does Blumenthal mention how he tried to skirt minimum wage laws? The Nelson Lichtenstein book, "Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism" is a must read. It's the kind of stuff that wouldn't go into the usual picture book for kids.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, she does - in a very straightforward manner. She also goes on to say that 10 years later, in 1971, he instituted one of the first profit-sharing plans that extended to all employees, largely at the urging of his wife.

      Delete
  2. So, if Butler Bros. had financed the concept, would we now be shopping at But-Mart?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Happy 50th to Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has been a part of my life since I can remember. The stores are FAR nicer operations now than they were, say, 30 years ago. They seemed so dowdy back then, in the "Discount City" days--emphasis on Discount there. I prefer Ben Franklin, which is the organization with which Walton was associated before the Wal-Mart days. There was a Ben Franklin in ParkCrest Shopping Center "back in the day," and we went to it a lot in the 70s and 80s. Toys, yard goods, and other dime-store goodies, plus a good framing department and postal services to round out the mix was the order of the day at Ben Franklin back when. It had a distinct smell, too, a pleasant, clean smell. There were several Ben Franklins around Springfield then. I really miss that store! I guess I can go to Walmart and pretend it is Ben Franklin, despite the fact that Ben Franklin wouldn't even hold the area set aside for checkout lanes alone in a SuperCenter!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Mike, I don't think I set foot in a Walmart until at least 1985, on a visit to Tennessee. I moved there two years later, and of course discovered the place was a way of life there.

    When I left the Chicago area in 1987, they weren't a factor at all there yet, though that changed soon afterward. I'd love to have seen some of those "dowdy" early stores in person! ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Springfield, MO had two Walmarts until about 1982, when a third opened. These first two were fairly poorly lit, the merchandise was similar to K-Mart's, but the stores seemed less spic-and-span. They were also, or so it seemed, smaller than a K-Mart of that era. One, at West Bypass and Sunshine, had been a locally owned place (I think) called Crazy Cecil. My grandmother called that store Crazy Cecil for YEARS after it became Walmart. The other, at Kansas and Kearney, was built by Walmart (I think). I wonder now if the emphasis on cheapness over decor that I remember being the hallmark of early Walmarts had to do with Sam Walton's model stores, which you discussed in your informative article, which seem to me to have followed a similar philosophy based on what I have read here and other places about them. They built a store here in about 1982 or 1983 at Campbell and Walnut Lawn; a supercenter is still there. That store was MUCH brighter, more modern, and had much more emphasis on quality decor. Perhaps a turning point in corporate philosophy can be seen here?

      One big plus with early Walmart: their amusement equipment was great. K-Mart might have a couple of little "rides" out front you could use for a quarter for a minute or two. But Wal-Mart had those, plus some of the earliest video games I remember ever seeing and those booths where kids could watch a cartoon for a dime or quarter. Theses were contained in "foyers" that shoppers passed through between outside and the store.

      Delete
  5. Ah, Springfield - I was just there yesterday, as a matter of fact! Drove by one of your classic Steak and Shakes. In my opinion, Springfield has a higher-than-average percentage of well-preserved old retail buildings.

    As mentioned, my personal experience with WM postdates their early era, but from what I've read and photos I've seen, 1982-3 is about when the stores started to take on a nicer appearance.

    I loved discount store rides, but most of my memories in that regard are associated with Zayre! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The actual 'turn', so to speak, was in 1979. Wal-Mart built two brand new stores in Pine Bluff, AR. These two stores were dubbed 'Project 79'. The signage, decor and atmosphere was slowly (very slowly) farmed out to the existing stores, but all new stores after Pine Bluff had some variant of the package. I remember two stores opening in Longview, TX in 1981. Both were FAR nicer than the store opened in Henderson (20 miles away) in 1977. Henderson would get this decor package and remodel a year and a half later, which stayed with it until it was moved to a new Supercenter in 1995 or so. Neither of these original 1981 stores are open; one moved to the 12th Supercenter in the chain in 1992, and the other was moved to one a few years ago.

      Delete
  6. This map gives you a good idea on the phenomenal growth of Wal-Mart over the last 50 years:

    http://projects.flowingdata.com/walmart/

    Also, I don't know if the author has heard of Auchan Hypermarkets, which were these huge supercenters in the Houston area that opened back in the late 80's. You know who was there visiting the hypermarkets to get a good idea on how to expand his store? That's right, Sam Walton!

    ReplyDelete
  7. That's a fascinating map!It's amazing to watch their growth start so slow then accelerate to a frenzied pace in such a graphic fashion.

    I've heard of the Auchan Hypermarkets, and in fact at least one opened in the Chicago area (78th and Harlem) not long after I moved away in 1987. Interesting (but not surprising) that Sam was still doing recon missions that late in his career!

    ReplyDelete