I loved my friend, Sam Walton. I still do.
I first met him when he was just getting started. At that time, he operated a scant 4,000 stores or so – still just a homespun, hometown storekeeper who had turned a little five and dime store in Rogers, Ark., into a giant national retailer.
A perpetual twinkle in his eyes, he exuded the enthusiasm of a much younger man who was seeing his impossible dream materialize, his vision of making excellent products available to millions of folks just like him, at prices lower than any other retailers thought possible.
His vigor, his energy, his obvious delight at surprising customers with real bargains was contagious; he loved popping in, unannounced and unexpected, at some of his stores and meeting the folks shopping through the aisles and even waiting on them, setting the example for his startled employees and showing them how much fun it was to meet people’s needs and to make them feel really appreciated.
Eventually, it became common knowledge that he drove a pickup truck, loved to hunt out in the fields with his beloved dogs, and that he was a devoted family man and deacon in his local Methodist church. A bunch of kids called him “Daddy,” and he and his wife, Helen, lived an amazingly simple, ordinary life in little Bentonville, Ark.
And man, he loved this country. He always looked for American-made products, and if he couldn’t find an American manufacturer to supply his stores, he was known to actually help local suppliers expand, so that they could fill his massive orders.
Example: One day, he noticed that the baseball gloves he was marketing were made in the Far East. “Why is this?” he asked his product managers. “Baseball is an American game. Can’t we find American-made baseball gloves?”
He personally contacted a manufacturer, in Oklahoma, I believe, and asked if his company could fill Wal-Mart’s orders. The startled man told him, “Why, Mr. Sam, I’d love to. But I just don’t have the capacity, the workers, to do what you need. I’d have to double or triple my equipment, hire more workers, spend more money than I have!”
Sam’s response was, “Let me help you. I’ll place my orders with you; I’ll help you expand so that you can fill ’em. I want to sell American-made baseball gloves in my stores.” And that’s what they did.
And now the American phenomenon known as Wal-Mart has spread all over the world, to Germany, Mexico and now soon into India and China! Though some criticize the sales behemoth, Sam’s relatively simple vision keeps growing: Buy in huge volume, shave the prices to the bone, and make good products available to the folks at bargain prices.
Why am I telling all this?
Well, I was asked by Neil Cavuto to join a panel on his show this week to discuss “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, and the sudden fear expressed by much of the media that Christmas sales might be lower than expected, mainly because Wal-Mart reported same-store retail sales 0.1 percent lower than projected! The headline in USA Today was “Markets Pull Back on Fears of Slump.”
And the article began, “U.S. stocks dropped the most in more than four months Monday after a falling dollar and a ‘sales slump’ at Wal-Mart heightened concern that an economic slowdown will curb holiday spending.”
Sales slump? 0.1 percent less than projected giant sales? I asked Neil why he wanted me on the show, since I’m not a noted economist. He responded, “I want somebody that will have something positive to say.”
And of course, that’s what I did, most happily. I pointed out that Wal-Mart’s online sales were up a reported 42 percent, so of course that might diminish store sales somewhat, but that online and store sales figured together added up to a whopping increase over previous years and any published projections! What “slump”?
And then USA Today reported, “Consumers spend 19 percent more over holiday weekend”! Further, they reported, “The unemployment rate was the lowest in five and a half years; employers are raising wages and increasing workers’ hours. In October, average weekly earnings after adjusting for inflation rose 1.7 percent, the second consecutive monthly gain and the biggest increase in more than a decade”! What “slump” is anybody talking about?
But another story in the same paper, not prominently positioned, really rattled me. Our Ford Motor Company announced it’s using all its north American plants, trademarks, patents and even some intra-company debt as collateral to secure $18 billion in loans to help fund the company’s attempt at restructuring over the next two years! And General Motors is doing something similar, borrowing some $6.1 billion! These are our American giants, struggling because our fellow citizens are rushing to buy foreign products, succumbing to the marketing and discounts and fears of rising fuel prices.
I believe we need some more manufacturers – and customers – who think like Sam Walton. He figured out how to meet Americans’ needs and desires, with American-made products. And his customers were, and still are, happy to buy American. (Admittedly, not even Sam and his successors have been able to sell only American-made products in this global economy, but this was always his desire and intent.)
And while I’m at it, I’m glad Wal-Mart is advertising “Christmas sales” this year, and not just meaningless, vapid “Holiday sales.” Don’t know about you. It’s a free country, but if I see an attractive bargain offered in a store that’s ashamed, or too intimidated, to refer to the season as “Christmas” – I’ll find a store that knows what the season, the holiday, is about.
And I’ll buy there, hopefully American!
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