Over sixty-five years ago, a man named Sam opened a five and dime store on the main drag of little Bentonville, Arkansas, a town of 2,900. Miraculously, that wee store of knickknacks transformed into what is today the largest company in the world.
Born in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in 1918, Sam Walton wasn’t exactly born with the business bee in his bonnet. In fact, he lived a surprisingly normal life. In 1942, as the US drove enthusiastically into the warfront, twenty-five-year-old Walton joined the fight. When those newspaper headlines announced the end of war in 1945, Walton followed his fellow troops home. He met a nice girl, moved to Iowa, then Arkansas. By all accounts, it was a typical life, almost boring in its mediocrity. But it was that simplicity and good ol’ American morals that earned Walton his success.
Sam and his wife Helen decided to move from Newport, where Walton had been oiling his retail chops, to Bentonville, Arkansas. Helen craved the comfort of small-town living. Walton craved the hunting opportunities and seasons that living at the nexus of four states would afford.
Having earned a few years of retail experience, Walton decided he would invest in a store of his own. He purchased a storefront in the center of town from Luther E. Harrison and opened Walton’s 5 & 10 in 1950.
His approach to retail, and success, was simple: lower prices, higher volume. He intentionally set his prices low and accepted a lower profit margin, hoping to woo a consistent base of loyal customers. His competitors thought he was crazy, and maybe he was, but it proved to be the greatest business strategy of the century.
You see, Sam understood the average American shopper, because he was one. He knew that customers wanted great value (everyone loves a deal) and great customer service. The combination of these two strategies proved for a pleasant and successful shopping experience, the kind of experience that turned patrons into regulars.
In 1962, spurred by the steady success of his first endeavor, Walton opened a sister store in Rogers, Arkansas. Perhaps in anticipation of the empire to come, he christened the store with the simple, memorable moniker “Walmart.”
Just five years later, twenty-four Walmarts were scattered across Arkansas. By 1968 Walmarts were in Oklahoma and Missouri too. It seemed Walton had truly alighted on the perfect retail formula. Good prices and friendly faces—the backbone of America.
But it’s hard to believe that Walton or his associates could ever have anticipated the growth that was to come. When the company went public in 1970, it embarked on a new type of journey, growing and expanding steadily into new markets and new countries. The company invested in entirely unprecedented retail formats, like the Walmart Supercenter, which combined variety and grocery stores into one, and Sam’s Club, which offered bulk products at reasonable prices.
Though experts can produce statistics and figures, mathematical equations that map out the success of the massive company, Walton himself always credited something a little simpler: his employees. Walton knew that if his employees provided a good shopping experience with friendly, helpful service, his customers would return. He viewed the business as a partnership between himself, or the corporation in later years, and his employees; they shared responsibilities, and they shared successes.
Just before his death in 1992, Walton was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was Walton’s unerring devotion to service and traditional American values that earned him the prestigious award. In his acceptance speech, Walton expressed the core sentiment of his company, and of himself: “If we work together, we’ll lower the cost of living for everyone. . . . We’ll give the world an opportunity to see what it’s like to save and have a better life.”
And so the Sam Walton who opened the 5 & 10 over sixty years ago is gone; and the Walmart he left behind has its share of controversy and criticism, as do most companies of such behemoth size. But there is no doubt Sam Walton’s legacy lives on in a company that still values value and offers millions worldwide the products they need at lower prices every day.