Retail Insights, Trends

Walmart POV Updated

Bentonville is now a brash new American City. No longer can you find a $24-a-night hotel room that includes a hot breakfast. Foreign car dealers and upscale chain restaurants have proliferated. Sushi bars and Korean food, no problem. The shortcut from the airport takes you past housing development after housing development — from tasteful town houses to obligatory McMansions. The airport taxi can be more expensive than New York City and as a result is often a shared ride.

You can find a hip hotel for couple of hundred bucks and the strip mall office complexes are shiny and new. The first time I sat at a bar in Bentonville, I met the local undertaker, 20 years later it was a Kraft Food salesperson.

I have a special affection for Crystal Bridges, the new museum of American Art. With my 35 years of work with cultural institutions, this one blew my socks off. A great collection of both large and small works, well organized and displayed and a progressive operating culture. It is warm, friendly, and free.

As many young executives have found, it’s a great town for raising a family. Small enough so you meet and know your neighbors. Safe enough to push your kids outdoors by themselves and enough family-friendly activities to make you feel part of a healthy community.

The Ozarks, like the Appalachian Mountains, are geologically old. They were never covered by the ice cap. As one local naturalist pointed out, “for every species of butterfly in Europe, we have ten.” The flora and fauna of the mountain of Arkansas are some the richest in North America. If you like the outdoors, this is one special place to live.

The real change in Bentonville is the faces, skin tones and attitudes of occupants of Walmart headquarters. This is now an international company. Mexico contributes a disproportionate share of Walmart’s corporate earnings. ASDA in the UK has been a Walmart property for 10+ years. Walmart China, India and Brazil are all alive and kicking. Aspiring young talent from across the world welcome the chance to spend their time at corporate central. Some of them may stick, many will rotate back to the home countries — but in the meantime they have changed the corporate culture. Their striving to listen and contribute is real.

The rural south at it’s best has a certain dignity to it. I recognize it from my old home in the mountains of North Carolina. The “Sir and Madam” thing is real. A friend moved to Bentonville from San Francisco with his domestic partner with trepidation. The two men were welcomed. They built their dream home in a place where the cost of construction is low and quality of the labor surpasses their previous experience of building a home in the East Bay. Like many parts of rural (and formally rural) America, people in Bentonville are judged on how they keep up their lawns, how they look after their neighbors, their friendliness and attention to grooming of their dogs. Race, religion and other stuff is secondary.

Sam Walton should be smiling; his creation has turned a corner. Sam believed in taking care of his employees and his customers. This isn’t Disneyland, it’s real. We’d some Walmart pixie dust directed at healthcare where mainstream Americans need help. And please grant the Walmart application for a domestic bank charter; we need a retail bank that focuses on the needs of the small customer.

We’d like Walmart to give Amazon a run for their money. The order online pick-up at the store still needs work. The operating model for Walmart’s various banners from Sam’s to Neighborhood still needs to better reflect the sophistication of their supply chain management so that the right product in the right location drives customer loyalty. Walmart historically has had muscle. In 2018 it has gravitas. It needs to use it.

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