Luke Johnson, the entrepreneur behind Pizza Express and former head of Channel 4, is a compulsive reader and he warmly recommended Made in America by Sam Walton. For years I resisted the chance to read the story of the man who made Walmart and boy was I wrong.
Quite simply this is a brilliant manual on what you need to do to be a successful independent retailer. In one chapter on thinking small, Walton says: “I always wanted to be the best retailer in the world, not the biggest.”
In 1960 in a newspaper article called Success Story of the Year it described how he and his family and managers had built up a nine strong chain of variety stores. He told the paper that nine was as big as it could get as it was as many as he could supervise.
Most readers don’t need to worry how he moved beyond nine to become the biggest retailer in history (he did this by hiring and inspiring great people). What they need to recognise is that Walton remained a great independent retailer till the end of his life.
“If we ever forget that looking a customer in the eye and greeting him or her and asking politely if we can be of help is just as important…today…then we just ought to go into a different business because we’ll never survive in this one,” he says.
He provides lots of advice for success but notes that they are all just “common sense and most of them can be found in any number of books or articles on management theory – many of which I’ve read and studied over the years”.
His 10 rules for success are prefaced with a few extra ideas such as:
- Work hard
- Build a team
- Have goals and always set them high.
My favourite rule today (tomorrow it could be different) is: Rule 8: EXCEED your customers’ expectations. If you do, they’ll come back over and over. Give them what they want-and a little more. Let them know you appreciate them. Make good on all your mistakes, and don’t make excuses-apologise. Stand behind everything you do. The two most important words I ever wrote were on that first Wal-Mart sign: ‘Satisfaction guaranteed.’ They’re still up there, and they have made all the difference.”
I also loved his tips on not buying “other people’s inefficiencies” and always remembering that “we are agents for our customers”.
He started out competing with the big firms and won. He says he never put anyone out of business. His competitor’s customers “were the ones who shut him down. They voted with their feet.”
What to do: “Most independents are best off, I think, doing what I prided myself on doing for so many years as a storekeeper: getting out on the floor and meeting every one of the customers. Let them know how much you appreciate them, and ring that cash register yourself. That little personal touch is so important for an independent merchant because no matter how hard Wal-Mart tries to duplicate it-and we try awfully hard- we can’t really do it.”
The book is simply brilliant. It is a manual for success. Ignore the title. This is How to be a brilliant retailer. Breathless prose. Read it today.