In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, an unlikely corporation spearheaded the relief effort. Walmart, long maligned as a junky department store, pulled off a stunning logistical feat, getting 100,000 meals, 1,500 truckloads of supplies, and jobs for every displaced worker to the site with a speed that outmatched even the government. It was a reminder of what many who had been paying attention already knew: Walmart is, in many under-appreciated ways, a powerful innovator.
Walmart’s Past Of Innovation
Walmart has always been innovative. Sam Walton, the founder, pioneered the idea of using lower-cost suppliers and passing the savings onto the consumer, making up the difference in volume. It seems simple, now, but before Walton came along, products were marked up that same amount all throughout the chain, making things particularly expensive in rural areas. In the ’70s, Walton used small private aircraft to scout out new locations for his stores. Later the company would buy aircraft second-hand to fly managers out to stores.
In 1987, Walmart completed what was at the time the world’s largest private satellite network, which linked all its stores with two-way voice communications. Throughout the ’90s, as it expanded, Walmart pioneered the global logistics that underpin most retail operations today. In 2005, the company’s CEO decided to set the company on a path to becoming completely green, with no waste and the stores running on renewable power. By 2015, it led corporate America in solar capacity and is branching out into energy storage. You may well be buying your solar power from Walmart without knowing it.
Even today, it is innovating. Part of this is inherent in Walmart’s design. The company is so enormous, it makes more sense to build custom solutions than it does to buy “off-the-rack” tech. But some of it is the company showing a degree of flexibility you simply wouldn’t expect from “Wally World.”
Walmart’s Present And Future Of Innovation
Walmart has a trick up its sleeve with mobile payments. If you sign up for a store-branded credit card and use Walmart’s mobile payment app, you get the card and its benefit immediately. Walmart has become an incubator of startup retail technology, holding summits to find the best of the tech available and adapt it to their stores.
Other ideas are more subtle in their design. While headlines about the death of retail fill major newspapers, Walmart has been one of the few retailers to ask themselves why shoppers are moving away from brick and mortar and has experimented with new store layouts that put products more closely associated with each other in one place. Instead of pushing a cart from the clothing section to shoes to the baby aisle, it’s all in one place to get the trip over faster, and Walmart’s Scan & Go tech means you can put in all the barcodes, weigh the produce, get the total, and pay without having to wait in line.
Walmart labors under no illusions about the tough road brick-and-mortar retail is facing. If it had been, Wall Street’s punishing the company with a ten percent drop in value over an earnings decrease, not even an actual loss, warned it. But, unlike many companies, Walmart assumes the churn of innovation is just the cost of doing business. The innovative spirit of Sam Walton still lingers as the company forges ahead.
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