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.