Back from Bentonville: What we learned

Sam Walton’s original store in Bentonville

Fresh off a three-day trip to Bentonville, Arkansas for a meeting of the minds that convened Walmart’s public relations consultants from across the US, our own Kelly Penton and Aaron Gordon sat down with Soundbytes to give us a taste of what makes the world’s largest retailer (and its hometown) tick – and what may be in store for customers over the coming years.

Soundbytes: So, three days in Arkansas. What struck you about Bentonville and the Walmart ecosystem?

Aaron Gordon: The level of talent really stood out. I came away with the sense that Walmart is building a ‘best and brightest’ culture and doing what it takes to lure people to Arkansas. There’s also a sense of entrepreneurship and economic growth in the area, which was somewhat unexpected coming from a major city like Miami. Trendy restaurants and boutiques are opening up around the town square and a number of new hotels are under construction. All of this was impressive and even surprising.

Downtown Bentonville

Kelly Penton: Most of the senior-level team members we met were younger than I would have guessed based on the age of the company. I also noticed that a high percentage of people serving in public affairs and communications roles have backgrounds in government and politics. As for Bentonville, the town seemed bigger – and busier – than I would have guessed. There is commercial development everywhere you look and it seems as if the residential population is growing.


SB: To what extent has the company stayed true to its Bentonville roots?

AG: Nobody will deny that Walmart has come a long way since its founding, but many of its core principles are still revered. There is universal admiration for founder Sam Walton within the company and in Bentonville. Walton always stressed the power of human interaction and created a ‘ten foot rule’ which maintains that associates who come within ten feet of a customer should say hello and initiate conversation. It’s a folksy detail, but it’s still in effect and seems particularly relevant in today’s digital age.

KP: The fact that Walmart has maintained its Home Office in Arkansas for all these years when so many other companies founded in small towns end up relocating is proof that Bentonville is part of the company’s DNA – and vice versa. Aside from creating economic impact and jobs, Walmart is also investing in the town’s quality of life, supporting the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Walmart amp concert venue and upgrades around the town square.

SB: How has Walmart’s message evolved over the years, from a public relations standpoint?

Sam Walton’s office as he left it on his last day at work.

AG: Look, Walmart is always going to stand for reducing the cost of living for customers. That’s at the source of every decision. Now the message is being broadened to account for saving customers’ time; helping people save money and time so they can live better. It’s a small but important shift that acknowledges how consumer behavior (and society in general) is changing – and it’s helping to fuel many of the most important advances underway, like upgrades to and the emphasis on small format stores.

KP: My sense is that as the company has grown internationally, there has been more of a concerted effort to proactively tell the Walmart story. Beyond being seen as a seller of goods and services that help people save money, Walmart wants to be perceived as a corporate citizen in the communities it serves. That approach has led to greater emphasis on the Walmart Foundation and the causes it supports, sustainability initiatives, associate benefits and economic impact.

SB: Can you shed light on any exciting developments that might be in store for us?

AG: We hear a lot about the need for affordable healthcare and the challenges facing hospitals, but rarely do we learn about implementable solutions. Walmart is rolling out a network of care clinics – now up and running in Texas, South Carolina and Georgia – which go beyond basic retail clinics by offering diagnosis and treatment of acute illnesses, immunizations and lab testing. Visits are priced as low as $40, which should remove some of the burden that’s weighing down our hospitals.

Walmart pickup associates hand-deliver groceries to customers’ cars.

KP: As a working mom, I was wowed by the Walmart Grocery Pickup test pilot we toured. Imagine creating a shopping list online, then picking it up two hours later without ever stepping foot in a grocery store (or ever unbuckling your seat belt). This concept is up and running right now in Bentonville and it’s been a huge hit. Hopefully it will land in Miami soon; otherwise I may be relocating to Arkansas!