Taking an expedition to the Walmart Visitor Center, located on the town square in Bentonville, Arkansas, has been on my "to do" list for a long time, but it was not until this past week, that I was able to "check it off". My new motivation was the announcement at the annual stock holders' meeting last month, that the whole thing had been completely renovated and updated, with the addition of a cafe, to commemorate the fact that 2012 means that Walmart has been in business for fifty years! When Sam Walton opened his 5 & 10 on the Bentonville town square in 1950, he had no idea he'd planted the seeds for what would become the global leader in retail, "saving people money so they could live better".
The remodeling project included the addition of a new cafe, adjacent to the original store, and occupies one corner of the Visitor Center complex. On the day I was there, the outdoor tables were buzzing with activity, as workers took their lunch breaks on the scenic court square.
The first section of the Visitor Center contains old time toys for purchase, similar to what would have been in stock in the original Walton 5 & 10.
Likewise, their stock includes items with a local connection. For instance, you can buy one of the famous Daisy BB pump guns, that had a manufacturing plant nearby.
Likewise, another product available for purchase, with a local connection, are the baking mixes from War Eagle Mill. You can also buy postcards, greeting cards, and Walmart gift cards that have old-time designs, unlike any you can purchase at the regular Walmart stores.
The exhibit gallery begins with the Sam Walton Theatre, where you will learn about Mr. Sam's life as an American leader and Walmart's global role in helping people save money, as well as live better.
One of the exhibits emphasizes the importance of the partnership between Sam Walton, and his wife, Helen. Her wedding dress is on display in the gallery, as well as a copy of their wedding invitation.
One of Sam Walton's most prestigious awards was presented to him by President H.W. Bush, in 1992. Sam Walton called the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award "the highlight of our entire career." Of course, it is exhibited in a very dignified way in the Visitor Center gallery.
"Dignified" is not how I would describe the completely authentic re-creation of Sam Walton's office. With its stacks of papers on the floor, wood paneling, and numerous photos on the wall of his hobbies and family, it reminded me of what my own father's office looked like back in the 1960's. Shortly after Sam Walton's death in 1992, his office was carefully dismantled and faithfully reassembled in the Walmart Visitor Center. Everything you see in this office was how Sam left it in March, 1992.
The gallery's re-design includes many interactive components, such as audio recordings from past associates of the early Walmart days. There are family-friendly Walmart shopping cart "drawers" to pull out that show how items of today's stores, compare with items of fifty years ago.
There is also a Google Earth touch screen, that has dots located where there are Walmart stores around the world. By playing with the screen, you can get down to the actual street view of a Walmart store located in another hemisphere!
Sam Walton was famous for driving around in his 1979 Ford F150 pickup truck, so naturally it is on display in the gallery. It still has the cages in the back for his hunting dogs.
Hurricane Katrina had a profound effect on the thinking of then CEO, Lee Scott. That was because the national spotlight was put on Walmart because they responded so quickly to offer assistance to hurricane victims in New Orleans, and surrounding Gulf Coast cities. This made Walmart executives realize they could do more to focus on the second part of the Walmart mission---help people live better. So, in 2005, he announced the company's sustainability goals: Create zero waste, use only renewable energy, and sell products that sustain the environment. I remember being at the 2005 stock holders meeting where he shared those goals with all present. I was delighted to see the company taking this direction in their corporate strategy!
Another aspect of the Walmart culture that delights me is their philanthropy. The Walton Family Foundation has donated BILLIONS to charitable causes around the world, but the ones that I am most familiar with are those in Northwest Arkansas. Their generosity is mind-boggling!
I grew up in Harrison, Arkansas, which was the location of the second store ever opened by Walmart. The gallery had a photo of the opening day of the the Harrison Walmart in 1964, and I was not surprised to see that the photo showed a man I recognized to be my father, right there in the middle of the crowd (he is the man in overalls, with his hand lifted up). My father was also a retailer and entrepreneur, and was probably there to check out his competition!
Now, that company that opened its second store in my home town, has grown to be the world's largest retailer, and non-government employer!
One entire wall of the * Cafe is decorated with the flags of the countries where Walmart is located, as well as trading pins and coffee mugs for those countries. I have noticed that when associates come from other countries to the annual stock holders' meeting, there is always alot of pin-trading going on. Now I know where they get those pins!
The * Cafe has indoor, as well as outdoor seating, and a full line of pastries, candies, and specialty coffee beverages.
Likewise, one can purchase many products with the special logo for 2012 that celebrates 50 years of Walmart.
This is a photograph of a postcard you can purchase at the store, painted by Brendan O'Connell, titled "The Art of Retail". It depicts the colorful addition that the Walmart Visitor Center brings to the historic Bentonville Town Square. Sam Walton had a list of ten rules for building a business. At the Visitor Center, you can pick up a brochure with a copy of these rules in FIVE different languages, besides English. This should give you a clue as to the international draw that WalMart has on the city of Bentonville. All of Sam's rules for building a business can be found in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, but Proverbs 11:11 seemed to best illustrate the impression I had after visiting the WalMart Visitor Center in downtown Bentonville. It says "Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted...." Oh yeah, and did I mention that there is no fee to while away the time in the air-conditioned comfort of the WalMart Visitor Center???!!! Plus, they have clean restrooms, and plenty of books to read! You can log on to http://www.walmartstores.com/ to start planning a visit that will bring you miles of smiles! Tricia