Sam Walton's High Expectations

April 08, 1992

"Anyone willing to work hard, study the business and apply the best principals can do well," Sam Walton once observed. "We learned from everyone else's book and added a few pages of our own."

Those few pages profoundly shaped the course of American retailing. Sam Walton, 74, who died Sunday in Little Rock, rewrote the rules of retailing, fusing discount pricing on brand-name goods and small-town locations into an extraordinarily successful merchandising story. His "low prices always" slogan and habit of calling employees "associates" have become standards in the industry. The 1,735 discount department stores he leaves behind have edged out rivals for the shopping dollars of middle America. Wal-Mart, which began life as Wal-Mart Discount City 30 years ago in a tiny Ozark outpost, last year sprinted past Sears as the nation's No. 1 retailer. Its impact, though, has meant financial trouble for hundreds of small-town merchants across the South and Midwest.

Yet for all his success and vast personal wealth -- part of a family fortune estimated at $23 billion -- Sam Walton was a man of simple tastes and hard working dedication. He drove an old Ford pickup and a battered Chevy Sedan sporting a pocked steering wheel christened with his hunting dog's bite. He was a regular visitor to the square in his hometown of Bentonville, Ark., where he'd breakfast at a coffee shop, shop for groceries and grab a haircut.

He was slavishly devoted to retailing -- not profits, but the business of selling. He visited stores in distant cities routinely and insisted his managers do the same. When fading health forced him to cede day-to-day oversight four years ago, he retained a hand in policy decisions.

Above all, Sam Walton was a believer in himself, his people and his country. His enthusiasm for what he was doing bordered on the evangelical. At last year's annual meeting he said, "High expectations are the key to everything."

When Mr. Walton was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom recently, President Bush called Mr. Walton "an American original," the essence of the American dream.

Mr. Walton was that and more. His retail philosophy and the empire he created are now firmly implanted in the American merchandising landscape. But the homespun man who proved that well-done retail gets the shoppers' dollar every time will be sorely missed.

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