Walmart again setting the pace

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Amid all the activity that promises to characterize mass market retailing this fall, one name stands out above the rest when it comes to innovation: Walmart.

With the usual group of pundits and soothsayers once again predicting the demise or minimization of brick-and mortar retailing, and with online shopping threatening to crowd out the traditional variety, when Amazon has emerged as the retailer everyone loves to hate, and when Jeff Bezos has, become the Dark Knight of the retailing community, the Bentonville behemoth that is the world’s largest and most important practitioner of the retailing art and science is once again setting the pace and the agenda for all the mortals who toil in the retailing ­vineyards.

Want proof? Look no further than Dallas. Not Dallas, Texas, but Dallas, Georgia. In this sleepy little Southern town, Walmart has opened a facility that is all about health. One would logically expect a health care-oriented retailer to set the pace in health care. That Walmart has done so says more about the discounter — if that one-word description still applies — than it does about the mass retailing community.

The new Georgia store says more about health and health care than all the nostrums spouted by all the self-appointed authorities about the directions in which health care is headed, about the move to self-medication, about the dwindling influence of physicians, about the onset of a new health care era, one in which the business of wellness is overtaking the business of ­sickness.

Walmart, with a pragmatism typical of Walmart, is telling its customers and potential customers that health remains in the eye of the patient, that brick-and-mortar retailing remains the answer, that all is not lost in the quest for immortality or, at the least, for an expanded living experience. Whatever the ultimate fate of the Dallas experiment — and Walmart is not accustomed to losing — kudos must be extended to this retailing innovator for taking the first tentative step down a new and largely uncharted path toward restoring the role of health care to its proper guardian: the patient.

But enough about the patient. Let’s talk about Walmart. In an era of unprecedented change in the retail community, Walmart remains the pacesetter. This is the store American (and foreign) consumers flock to when they want to buy something — almost anything — and they know that Walmart will treat them fairly. Thus, the retailer continues to dominate — in sales, in earnings, in store trips, in new ideas and new wrinkles — and, most importantly, in innovation. The days when Walmart dominated the retail landscape are almost certainly over, at least in the sense that competitors threw up their hands and closed their doors. Sam Walton — yes, that Sam Walton — once told a friend that he went to bed every night wondering if, while he slept, the retail community would figure out what Walmart was all about and quickly extinguish the retailer’s temporarily bright lamp. In truth, the opposite happened, and U.S. retailers began marching, reluctantly, to Walmart’s drumbeat.

Today, the U.S. retailing community has figured Walmart out, has learned to compete, has at last grasped the fact that it may be everything but it’s not the only thing. But in their haste to grasp the essential truth about Walmart’s success, they learned to compete with the Walmart of yesterday, the Walmart that used to be.

Today, under the leadership and management of a sparkling new team of executives who are, in their ways, every bit the equal of their predecessors, Walmart has set off in some brilliant new directions. Without detailing them here, suffice it to say that any competitor who has not visited a Walmart emporium recently, who has become unnecessarily distracted by the bright light of online retailing, by the glamour of Amazon and all it promises, is missing the boat.

Shopping — brick-and-mortar shopping — is what America has been all about since its inception, and will continue to be all about in its future. Shopping is what Americans do. We might, for the moment, stare into our computer screens or remain obsessed with our mobile devices — much to the credit of Alexander Graham Bell, the man who started all this telephone business — but getting into our automobiles and driving to the mall is what we do — and do best. It’s once of the things that has made America unique in the world. Not the acquisition of merchandise but the acquisition of experience. Online shopping may be a momentary distraction. But Walmart has been distracting Americans since 1962, when Sam Walton opened his first store in Rogers, Ark. — that’s the town that abuts Bentonville — when, according to Sam, the donkeys he brought to the event did what donkeys do, and a friend casually mentioned to Sam that he might want to try another line of work. Happily for the American consumer, Walton chose to ignore this street-corner wisdom. The rest, as they say, is history.

So, retailing students, remain enamored, if you must, with Amazon, at least for the moment, but keep your eye on Walmart. That’s where it’s happening — and will continue to happen, at least in our lifetimes.



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