Friday, September 7, 2007

Wal-Mart Visitors' Center in Bentonville, Arkansas

Birthplace of Wal-Mart:
Address: 105 S. Main Street, Bentonville
Admission: Free.
Hours: 9 am - 5 pm, Tue - Sat (Call to verify)
Phone: 479-273-1329

Wal-Mart sold $215 billion worth of things in 2001, 15% more than they sold in 2000. They are everywhere in this country, with 1,600 stores in the traditional Wal-Mart format, along with 1,000 "Supercenters," and 500 Sam's Clubs. As we approach Bentonville from the old Daisy BB Gun Headquarters in Rogers, we become more aware of its power. Growing convoys of semi trucks, with Wal-Mart or Sam's Club emblazoned on their sides, pass us as we close in on the Birthplace of Wal-Mart. On the way to its the humble small town beginning, we pass Wal-Mart's giant, modern distribution center and enormous, modern corporate HQ.

The original Wal-Mart still exists in downtown Bentonville, well-kept and facing the town square. It would no longer work as a viable business -- Wal-Mart crushes similar concepts -- but serves instead as a Visitor's Center, educating and communicating the Wal-Mart story, and the greater story of success through hard-work and dedication. It is no surprise to see groups of men here, golf-shirts, hairy forearms and metal-band wristwatches, searching for that elusive Spark.

The Visitor's Center recalls an old five and dime store up front, while the back rooms are more museum-like. The 100,000,000th square foot of Wal-Mart space is displayed, as well as old employee manuals like the "Origin of Shirley Shrinkage," and the hula skirt Walton wore down Wall Street after the company achieved 8% pretax profits in 1984. Looping presentations such at "The Story of Wal-Mart Video" explain the company's ascendance.

The "keys to the city" of many towns are bittersweet to look at, when viewed either as symbols of welcome or as "handing Wal-Mart the keys." Wal-Mart's arrival in declining towns is chronicled to make sure the keys are perceived correctly. Wal-Mart saved Brinkley, AR, in "A story of hope and will." And White Squirrel capital, Olney, IL is where Wal-Mart lanterns and sweaters are made by Americans, beating back foreign competition.

Sam Walton, the late Wal-Mart Founder, was one of the country's richest people (and family members still are). Sam grew up in the depression, and during this hard period forged his attitude of not "Can Do," but "Will Do." Wal-Mart's huge success in an understandable low-tech business implies that anyone with the right attitude can win.

The last section of the Visitor's Center is dedicated to Sam and the Cult of Personality that has naturally grown around him. There are are no magical talismans on display, just items from the normal part of Sam's life: Ol' Roy Dog Food, moldering Moon Pies, his wife's wedding dress, Sam's mud-caked hunting boots, and his favorite pickup, a 1979 red Ford F150 custom pickup with 65,627 miles on the odometer (a significant statistic for Samophiles to know). And, after Sam's death, his entire office was moved from general headquarters and reassembled here.

Souvenirs are sold to remember the visit, and to make sure that the lessons of hope and will are not soon forgotten. Our favorite: An inch-tall porcelain pill box shaped like the first store -- "Made In China."

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