For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, a service business is on top.
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
ROGERS, ARK. -- The world's new No. 1 company boasts no factories or smokestacks. It has no signature product.
Instead, Wal-Mart Stores has reached the top by selling other people's goods more cheaply than anyone else.
When the Arkansas-based corporation releases its 2001 fiscal year revenue figures today, it's expected to breeze by oil giant Exxon Mobil to become the world's largest corporation, with sales of $218 billion.
Wal-Mart's ascent signals many things: the power of ideas, the importance of corporate values and the triumph of the post-industrial economy.
For the first time since the Industrial Revolution took hold in the United States, a nonindustrial, service business has risen to the top of the corporate rankings.
The down side: But the epic transformation of a single five-and-dime into a world-beating corporation has its downside. It has sucked the life out of small-town business districts. Its low-price success spawns low-pay jobs. Its spread has helped pave over America's geographical diversity with cookie-cutter stores that detractors find numbingly similar.
If the "Wal-Martization" of America -- and increasingly, the world -- stands for anything, it's this: Good ideas backed with hard work can reach unimaginable heights. But success often has unintended consequences.
These two faces of success follow Wal-Mart wherever it locates. Here in Rogers, Ark., they stare each other down and provide a preview into where the Wal-Mart phenomenon may lead America.
A sleepy, rural town when Sam Walton opened his first Wal-Mart here 40 years ago, Rogers now pulses like a boomtown. The region, including nearby Bentonville and Fayetteville, represents the sixth-fastest-growing U.S. metro area. Most locals seem to enjoy the heady times. But the more Wal-Mart grows, the louder its critics get.
"Every little town starts to resemble every other town," said Al Norman, head of Sprawl-Busters and one of the corporation's most vocal detractors.
"And people who gather in these enormous warehouses frequently never see anyone familiar from visit to visit."
Background: Walton's first store in Rogers was an inauspicious beginning. An investor in local five-and-dimes, Walton had none of the corporate backing or experience of the other three.
He did have "a searing insight ... that small towns could support big stores," said Harvard business professor Richard Tedlow.
While Walton's competitors conquered the cities and suburbs, he aimed at rural America. It turned out to be brilliant strategy. By not competing directly with the large chains, he could experiment and build his empire without attracting much attention.
As a result, he offered rural America a broader range of goods at cheaper prices than ever before. In the process, he decimated mom-and-pop merchants.
While other retailers also pioneered new techniques, Walton excelled in implementing them. He listened to his own associates -- an employee in Louisiana inspired the idea of front-door greeters.
His improvements reached into virtually every avenue of retail. He early on realized the power of the bar-code scanner to automate inventory control. His company streamlined shipping.
Wal-Mart quickly adopted wireless networking and now boasts the world's largest private computer network.