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June 12, 2009 7:33 PM

Business, Retail

In Wal-Mart Country

Those Wal-Mart folks are a hearty bunch. If nothing else, "Mr. Sam," instilled in his employees an appreciation of the early-to-bed, early-to-rise adage and a serious work ethic, leading by his own 16-hour-day example. I was reminded of this when...

Those Wal-Mart folks are a hearty bunch. If nothing else, "Mr. Sam," instilled in his employees an appreciation of the early-to-bed, early-to-rise adage and a serious work ethic, leading by his own 16-hour-day example. I was reminded of this when I attended the company's media day and annual shareholders meeting last week in Fayetteville, Ark.


The drive from Northwest Arkansas Airport to Bentonville is pleasant enough, passing green pastures dotted with horses, cows and charming ramshackle barns, a scene that is occasionally broken by gated McMansion communities, followed by more bucolic scenery.


I checked into my hotel on Wednesday evening, ordered a tostada chicken salad from the all-Mexican-food restaurant menu and watched "The Devil Wears Prada" (twice). Watching the machinations and ridiculous striving of aggressive New Yorkers made me feel more at home while in the hinterlands.



The next morning, I was down in the lobby at 8:30 a.m., ready for breakfast. What? Breakfast was over at eight, and the buses were leaving. I panicked. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and I'm a beast without coffee. A Wal-Mart public relations woman grabbed my arm and lead me to the bus. She apologized to the driver with a pinched look on her face, like a head counselor dealing with an errant camper. From a bucket of snacks, I grabbed the peanut butter crackers and pretzels and called that breakfast.


We were rolling now, to Distribution Center 6094 in Bentonville. "I've never been to a d.c.," said a perky member of the p.r. team. "This is gonna be great."

 
The facility, with 72 acres under the roof, had 12 miles of conveyor belts coursing overhead. Our guide, Mike MacNamore, vice president of logistics, told us that the center ships and receives 400,000 cases a day -- 600,000 at peak times of year. After walking most of those 72 acres, we teetered up the precarious metal stairs to the top floor where 16 conveyor belt lines converge. The boxes are bar coded and electronically sorted into 116 chutes that correspond to 116 stores. While getting hundreds of thousands of parcels to slide down the right chute is a feat, I wasn't sure I could muster as much enthusiasm as MacNamore, who said, "I could watch this all day."


Wal-Mart loves its technology, supply chain management and logistics as much as it loves its folksy corporate culture. Former chief executive officer H. Lee Scott joined the company in 1979 as director of logistics and other leaders worked their way up through the high-testosterone ranks.

 
Outside the d.c., a group of uniformed truckers, including the requisite woman, were assembled for the press' benefit and two gleaming trucks were parked in the lot for our perusal. One was the first of its kind to be propelled fully on its electric motor and two lithium batteries. The other ran on a combination of fuel and grease collected from Wal-Mart stores and Sam's Clubs and processed into fuel. (I got a mental picture of rotisserie chicken grease being harvested to run the big rigs.)


We got back on the buses and headed to Sam's Club, where a phalanx of associates clapped as we passed through the entrance. In the Fresh department, there was serious sampling going on: key lime cheesecake, crab cakes with jambalaya rice and fresh fruit. "Demos drive sales," said a Sam's manager as a blonde sixtysomething woman cooked sausages and rice. We heard how Sam's is right-sizing its packs because consumers complained that they were too big. We learned about the trend toward comfort food such as mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and meatloaf. We heard that consumers view Dove bars as small indulgences and that babies are staying in diapers longer, and forgoing pull-ups and going straight to underwear, to save money.


After a working lunch, we herded ourselves back onto the buses for a tour of the Bentonville Wal-Mart Supercenter. I hung out in the apparel department where a plethora of No Boundaries dresses, drawstring shirts, bohemian tops and five-pocket shorts in DayGlo colors occupied several racks. The store's new L.E.I. by Taylor Swift collection was front and center and Op cargo shorts, tube top dresses and bathing suits occupied prime real estate. There was no sign of Metro 7, however, and I was later told that Wal-Mart doesn't carry it anymore.
Dinner was on Wal-Mart that night, at Vineyard Catering, where local wines flowed and the menu consisted of field salad, a steak and chicken presentation and chocolate cake. Much better than last year's artery-clogging fried catfish and hush puppy supper. By now, it's probably obvious why I was voted "biggest kvetcher" on the bus.

 
Four a.m. came painfully early on Friday morning, especially since I got to bed later than planned. By five, most of the journalists were limping around the Holiday Inn lobby, schlepping their laptop computers and complaining about the lack of sleep, food and coffee. It was a 30-minute ride to the annual at the Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

 
Wal-Mart, at times, has had an adversarial relationship with the press. But the company has warmed up to the Fourth Estate and now treats reporters with ambivalence. That much was clear at the press room at the annual -- a nerve center with Ethernet plug-ins and closed-circuit TVs that allowed us to watch the action close to our laptops when we weren't on the floor. The coffee was cold, the pastries were laden with frosting and the muffins tasted like cardboard. I mention this because I equate food with love.

 
But the annual was still a good time. The media sat on folding chairs on the floor of the arena, which felt a little like being at a rock concert. Reporters shuttled between the press room and the floor seats as the spirit moved them. Joe "Guido" Welsh, who, along with four other musicians, is Wal-Mart's unofficial house band, started at 6 a.m. and got the 20,000-seat arena pumped with R&B versions of the Wal-Mart cheer and other original tunes. Standing on line for the ladies' room, I spied Gene Simmons in the hallway, looking like he painted his hair with black shoe polish. Simmons and bandmate Paul Stanley made a surprise appearance at the meeting, sparking the rumor that Kiss may release its first album in 11 years exclusively with Wal-Mart.

 
Of course, Kiss would have torn up the stage. By comparison, Kris Allen, Miley Cyrus, Paulina Rubio and Smokey Robinson, the official entertainment, seemed almost sedate. Host Ben Stiller had the best line, however: "Man, you guys like to wake up early. I hear they're still sleeping at Target."


Hopefully, Wal-Mart will heed Stiller's kvetching.
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