Walk into any Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) superstore, and you might find something you didn’t expect: a glimpse of the future.
While the culture of the company might be viewed by most — either by corporate design or customer experience — as mainstream, the truth is the Benton, Ark.-based retailer is one of the most dynamic and forward-thinking companies in the world.
Wal-Mart is, if not ahead of the curve, at least right on the cusp of it in ways you wouldn’t think about. Hiding inside those behemoth store structures are cutting-edge culture and technology warriors, thinking outside of their own “big box.”
Don’t think so? How about these early-adopter strategies that turned into norms:
Wal-Mart initiated in-store banking long before anyone found financial “centers” in supermarkets. Cashing checks, selling prepaid debit cards, paying bills and wiring money were all established in the 1970s at Wal-Mart stores, and today more than a thousand of them will gladly handle virtually anything but deposits. The most simplistically brilliant part of the check-cashing service? After you cash that check, you have money in your pocket to spend — right in the store.
Wal-Mart’s first in-store pharmacy opened in 1977, an innovation that resonates today as pharmacy-specific retailers like Walgreen (NYSE:WAG) and CVS Caremark (NYSE:CVS) battle for survival with big-box and supermarket players like Costco (NASDAQ:COST) and Safeway (NYSE:SWY).
Wal-Mart took the store-in-a-store trends found in some department stores even further in 1978 by incorporating jewelry, shoe and vehicle service centers into their Wal-Mart operations. The result was a jump up in revenue to $1 billion the following year.
The company opened its first Sam’s Club membership warehouse in 1983, and in 1988 it opened the first supercenter featuring a complete grocery, in addition to general merchandise. The era of the “big-box” store might not have been born there, but it accelerated the concept.
Wal-Mart’s recent “green” initiative with Colorado-based SolarCity has already put solar panels across the entire roofs of 75 superstores, driving the way toward energy efficiency and savings. Think customers don’t notice that type of verification of a trend? They do.
A colleague of mine recently told me his local Wal-Mart was sporting an organic-food section during his last visit. Health-conscious consumers are sprouting up everywhere, and if Wal-Mart deigns to join, if not lead the people to fruits, vegetables and bottled water, you can bet it’s not just a fad for the Birkenstock crowd.
Last but not least, Wal-Mart is on the right end of yet another growing trend — cloud computing. Wal-Mart will now take your entire DVD collection and copy it to “the cloud” for future use! For a mere $2 each, customers can take in their old, yellowing, closet-cluttering DVDs and copy them, then trash them — or better yet, give them to charity. Imagine viewing The Social Network ad nauseum without having to rummage around the DVD rack!
So next time you visit the local Wal-Mart, look around. You might just be looking at the next great trend.
Marc Bastow is Assistant Editor at InvestorPlace. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.