Walmart changed retailing in Texas permanently

Willis Webb, retired newspaperman

Most people under 35 can’t remember life before Walmart.

Many older Texans still have some bitter feelings about Sam Walton’s “discount” store creation when it began to debut in the Lone Star State in the 1970s. Naturally, some shoppers welcomed the notion of lower prices, even if detractors said the merchandise was inferior.

Wal-Mart, as the chain’s first signage and advertising proclaimed, made such a big splash in small towns because it was generally much larger than any store in town and its marketing and advertising hit at the low price theme loudly and often.

While the discount store was considered a godsend by many shoppers, it was a pariah in other segments of business and society.

Whatever the claims were versus reality paled beside the bitterness created when mom-and-pop shops, which were not designed for volume buying or sales and thus had to charge higher prices to be profitable, began to close their doors. Those mom-and-pop-shops closures affected small towns quite adversely, particularly in Walmart’s early years.

Longtime small town residents who owned the mom-and-pop stores grumbled about their plight to very sympathetic neighbors.

For several years, Walmart killed small stores — department and/or specialty — with the low price theme emphasized through an aggressive advertising program. That increased resentment and bitterness but the chain continued a phenomenal growth pattern.

When Walmart began to attract a lot of attention, I was out of newspaper publishing, working in graphics sales in Houston. Large cities still weren’t on Walmart’s radar, at least not as far as the public and the competing retailers knew.

My introduction came in 1982 when I returned to community newspaper publishing in Lockhart where a fairly new Walton operation was wreaking havoc on an understandably angry, beleaguered, resentful and hurting retail community. The outgoing publisher informed me I “would need a wheelbarrow” to pick up all of the ads from the Walmart store.

That seemed no exaggeration as three weeks out of the month, there were anywhere from three to eight full-page ads. During the fourth week, Walmart’s circular mailer always hit consumers’ mailboxes.

Greed overcame vision and foresight for some in the community newspaper business.

But, many publishers and editors didn’t stop to consider that because they’d never had a single advertiser consistently run that much advertising before. When some of the mom-and-pops began to bite the dust, their smaller but more numerous ads went with them, it began to dawn on publishers there might be some inherent danger in this enormous concentration of advertising lineage.

In addition, Walmart’s emergence coincided with a trend toward larger department store chains, some of which came “south” with the migration of many Yankees into Texas and Southern climes and job markets. That population shift came about at least in part because of a brief 1980s oil and gas boom that swelled our economy.

Those migrating Yanks didn’t take to Texas department and specialty store retailing brands such as Foley’s, Sakowitz and Battlestein’s. New York giant Macy’s bought all Foley’s and its stores changed to bear the parent name. Battlestein’s bit the dust. Sakowitz survived but never grew beyond the initial handful of stores.

Meanwhile, new department stores proliferated and thrived. Target and Kmart (a Sears operation) became principal competitors for Walmart. Small towns got an infusion of Gibson’s Discount, Bill’s Dollar Store and a myriad of low price, cheaper merchandise operations.

Walmart expanded into groceries and super stores years ago as did Kmart and Target.

So, the Walmart emergence in Texas dovetailed with all of the other growth and the development of a newer breed of department stores as opposed to discount operations.

Who knows what future generations will see in terms of retail operations. I just know it will be extremely interesting and, unfortunately, painful to some probably familiar retailing brands.

Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher of more than 50 years experience. He can be reached by writing him at wwebb@wildblue.net

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