Lessons in Vision From Wal-Mart and Trader Joe’s


Seeking retail entrepreneur and visionary. Candidate will correctly predict the future, launch a retail organization based on those forecasts, and in the process transform the food industry.

If this were a real job ad, it wouldn't be very successful. First, it's almost impossible to find someone with all these entrepreneurial traits. Second, the few candidates who do exist wouldn't apply for jobs. They'd create them.

But this ad copy is useful because it pinpoints the characteristics that defined two very special entrepreneurs now being honored by SN with induction into our Hall of Fame. Those are the late Sam Walton, who founded Wal-Mart Stores in 1962, and Joe Coulombe, who created Trader Joe's in 1967. These men knew things about innovation and vision that we can still learn from.

Profiles of the leaders appear in this issue, along with a profile of a legendary former Kroger leader, the late Joseph B. Hall, who is another new addition to our Hall.

While Walton and Coulombe had quite different business visions, they had some surprisingly similar qualities.

Both managed to grasp key future trends and opportunities better than others. Walton, of course, early on came to understand how proficiency in low-cost operations and efficiency would be a game changer for the industry. Coulombe saw an emerging group of consumers who were highly educated but with relatively low incomes, and realized they would need a sophisticated retail outlet that addressed their lifestyles.

Each of these entrepreneurs was committed to experimentation. Walton learned a lot from trying unconventional approaches early in his career after purchasing a Ben Franklin variety store in Arkansas. Coulombe learned from his early experiences with starting a convenience store chain.

Later, during his Trader Joe's experience, he was driven to launching waves of new in-store concepts partly because, as he put it: “When every last cent you own is invested in the business … you tend to come up with a lot of ideas.”

Both Coulombe and Walton were determined to fine-tune their retail formats and niches, and were pleased when their concepts ran counter to directions of competitors.

Walton once said: “I ignore the conventional wisdom and go the other way. If everybody else is doing it one way, there's a good chance you can find your niche by going in exactly the opposite direction.”

How can we benefit today from the experiences of these men? Here are a few observations: Make sure to clearly read trends (a bit harder to do today due to information overload). Don't be afraid to experiment. Once you've done due diligence and made assessments, trust your convictions. And maintain an entrepreneurial edge. The last one is hardest to do in a large organization, but it's crucial.

OK, so these lessons sound basic, right? Well, why does success have to be highly complex?


Liz Webber

Liz Webber is Engagement Director / Fresh Market Editor at Supermarket News. She covers fresh foods for the magazine and creates multimedia, blog posts and other content for the website. She joined...

Elliot Zwiebach

Elliot Zwiebach has been with Supermarket News for more than 45 years — a span difficult for him to comprehend, having once been the youngest reporter on the staff. During that time he has...
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