I can’t quite remember when I became aware of the Wal-Mart phenomenon. Growing up in a small Indiana town, our local discount store was a K-mart or Woolworth five and dime. I don’t believe that Wal-Mart even expanded to Indiana until after I moved to Florida in the mid-80’s. I just seemed to wake up one day and Wal-Marts were literally everywhere.
The Wal-Mart expansion is controversial for its history of opening in small towns and driving small, local businesses out of business. It’s hard for those small businesses to compete with Wal-Mart’s immense purchasing power and resulting lower prices. On the other hand, the chain does offer lower-cost merchandise (helping families stretch their budget) AND jobs. It’s a trade-off.
RV-ers typically like Wal-Mart because of their established policy to allow overnight RV parking at stores, unless specifically prohibited by town ordinance. We have parked overnight a time or two while in transit from one area to another. We can stock up on needed items, use their bathroom facilities, purchase a hot meal, and park safely overnight. Every Wal-Mart that we’ve been to also has a section of RV-specific items such as sewer hoses, tank treatment chemicals, fittings, and other often-needed items. That’s really handy.
So, while in Bentonville Arkansas – home of Wal-Mart – we had to stop in at the free Wal-Mart museum (located at the site of his first store) to learn about the founder’s remarkable history. Born in 1918, Sam Walton’s youth was influenced by the hardships of the Great Depression. Following college and a stint in the military (WWII), he went into retail – first as a management trainee for JC Penneys, and later as the manager of another retail store. It wasn’t long before he took the leap to open his own store and begin building what would become a vast global empire.
The museum walks you through a timeline of his life and his business successes. Early on, he decided that he would find quality merchandise at the lowest possible price even if he had to travel a distance to find it. His goal was to provide great value, thus “saving people money so they could live better”. Saving people money, means more dollars in their pocket to improve their quality of life in other ways. It’s hard to argue with that philosophy.
The story of his incredible business success is impressive – but I have to wonder about the toll such drive takes upon the man and his family. The museum talked in glowing terms about his devotion to family and community; after all, it IS his museum! And I have no doubt he was both inspiring and approachable. Such qualities make a great leader. But he was on the road constantly. First to find items of good value for his store, then to scout new store locations, and finally to visit all of his store locations. Such travel doesn’t make for the easiest home life.
And what about his own life/work balance? He essentially worked until he died. Did he truly have the opportunity to enjoy the monetary success that all of his efforts reaped? It’s hard to say.
I hope so.