Wal-Mart’s weaknesses exposed

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 15, 1999

Around town this week I have been reading the book Sam Walton Made in America which documents the life and success of the founder of the Wal-Mart discount store chain.

Sam Walton was an amazing man, but, he can probably be pointed to for single handedly destroying most of the small businesses that local economies used to depend on.

Sam's legacy has left some benefits and some drawbacks, but it would be hard to imagine shopping on Saturday without making a trip to Wal-Mart.

Sam's secret for success is very detailed, but what it boils down to mostly is that he had a desire to be the best. He wanted to provide the best products possible, for the best price, and in order to do that he had to find out what his customers were buying elsewhere.

Most people credit Sam for undercutting the competition and making it hard for small businesses to survive, but what he is most guilty of is creating a

business model that those who could not understand could not survive.

Sure, Wal-Mart sells everything, almost, and at prices that mom and pop stores can not touch in most instances, but Sam did leave one area untouched and it is this weakness where Wal-Mart can be exploited.

Niche marketing is Wal-Mart's Achilles heel, and it is through this type of specialized sales that small merchants have stayed alive in downtown districts such as Greenville's.

A smart small business person would never try to compete with Wal-Mart. Let's look at an example.

Wal-Mart sells hardware, yet so do other local merchants and they still survive. How? Through niche marketing.

Wal-Mart's hardware aisles are confusing and poorly organized. The shelves are cluttered with items which are poorly marked, and the knowledge level of most of the employees is far below what it would take to make the proper suggestions or help someone find the right item for a particular problem they might be experiencing.

I have never been inside Jim Dunklin's Greenville Hardware uptown, however, without being greeted by a knowledgeable sales person asking me what I need.

I am not very mechanically inclined, so when I begin explaining my hardware related problems, I depend on these guys to know what I am talking about.

Without fail, Jim's employees have not only suggested a solution, but several solutions with several different price ranges to help me fix whatever my problem around the house might be that week.

The next time you're in Greenville Hardware, look around. There are not very many hardware related items that Jim doesn't stock, and if he doesn't have it he can get it by late afternoon in most cases.

While Wal-Mart may discount most items, the sheer diversity of the items it carries prevents the company from getting very specific with any one type of product.

Wal-Mart sell guns and hunting supplies too, but I wonder how they compare in product quality and customer service to a business like Hunter's Hideout across from the courthouse.

Again, these folks are in the business of guns and hunting supplies. They know what they are talking about, and they can show their customers that sometimes you really do get what you pay for.

A smart small business person would go to Wal-Mart and look around, find out what the company is selling at discount prices and sell something else. Wal-Mart sells almost everything, but almost is a very big word.

Around town this week, remember to visit the local merchants of Greenville. They are hard working folks that need and deserve our support.

And, although it may be hard to survive without Wal-Mart, giving the little guys a chance keeps more of

you money here at home where it should be.