Lessons From Sam Walton

Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart

This is the first in a series of posts on what I like to refer to as Retail DNA.  This is a new category and something I will write on from time to time.  Some owners of retail businesses seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to running their business. They approach things differently.  They don’t need to be told, they figure these things out on their own.  It’s like it’s part of their DNA.  The good news is, the rest of us can learn from them.  We are going to look at a few of my favorites, I hope you enjoy the ride and let me know what you think.

Now this different approach applies to the way they treat both their staff and their customers. If you read Sam Walton’s autobiography “Sam Walton: Made in America” you will learn from one of history’s greatest retailers. I read the book many years ago and there are lessons that are part of the fundamentals I use when working with a retail client.

First, let me say that this post is not intended to be part of any discussion about how Wal-Mart is perceived today in terms of their treatment of employees.  I am aware there are opinions on both sides but this is not something I have studied and therefore am not qualified to weigh in.  This post is meant to share some thoughts and ideas that you can apply to your own retail business.

Now back to my example. Many business owners keep information from their front line staff. The fear is that the information might be misused or competitors might learn this inside information. Sam Walton respected his front line staff. They weren’t clerks they were associates and he shared information. My daughter early in her working life worked in a Walmart store. She wasn’t “part-time” she was a “prime-time” employee.  On her first day on the job was told exactly what that stores sales were the previous day. Sam felt there was value in sharing the information with everyone as it made them feel an important part of the success of the store. This benefit far outweighed any possible damage that might occur from people outside the company gaining access to the information.

Make your employees feel that they are important to your success.  Share information with them and give them an opportunity to show you what they are capable of.

Are you Saving any Money?

I’ve noticed that some retailers are seriously understaffed.  I have gone into stores with the intention of making a purchase and left without the item(s) I needed.  I was unable to find the item and was also unable to find any help on the floor.  A few years ago when the economy was very strong it was hard to find staff.  Today, since the economy slowed, staff are available.  Why can’t I find help?

Some of my retail clients tell me they have benefited from the downturn.  They are able to get and keep good staff.  If a store has no staff on the floor they are cutting expenses which is false economy.  Good staff on the floor help customers find the things they need.  Well trained staff can also interest customers in additional purchases.

Your people are a critical component of your success in retail.  They are the point of contact with your customers and therefore they are the face of your business.  Jan Carlzon calls there interactions between customers and staff “Moments of Truth” which is the title of his book.  Carlzon was the CEO of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS).  He empowered his front line staff to deal with a problem in the way that they would want the problem dealt with if they were the customer.  Under his leadership the airline experienced a dramatic turnaround.  When a store has no staff they sacrifice not only sales but the opportunity to make connections with customers.