Stodgy Ol’ Wal-Mart Well Ahead of the Curve

by Marc Bastow | May 9, 2012 8:00 am

Wal-Mart WMTWalk into any Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT[1]) 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[2]) and CVS Caremark (NYSE:CVS[3]) battle for survival[4] with big-box and supermarket players like Costco (NASDAQ:COST[5]) and Safeway (NYSE:SWY[6]).

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[7] 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[8], 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[9]. 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.

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