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Wal-Mart: world's largest company

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All this seems a world away from 1962 when Woolco, Target, Kmart and Wal-Mart were launched.

Walton's first store in Rogers was an inauspicious beginning. An investor in local five-and-dimes, Walton had none of the corporate backing or experience of the other three. He did have "a searing insight ... that small towns could support big stores," says Harvard business professor Richard Tedlow.

While Walton's competitors conquered the cities and suburbs, he aimed at rural America. It turned out to be brilliant strategy. By not competing directly with the large chains, he could experiment and build his empire without attracting much attention. As a result, he offered rural America a broader range of goods at cheaper prices than ever before. In the process, he decimated mom-and-pop merchants.

While other retailers also pioneered new techniques, Walton excelled in implementing them. He readily borrowed ideas from Kmart founder Harry Cunningham. He listened to his own associates - an employee in Lousiana inspired the idea of front-door greeters.

His improvements reached into virtually every avenue of retail. He early on realized the power of the bar-code scanner to automate inventory control. His company streamlined shipping. Wal-Mart quickly adopted wireless networking and now boasts the world's largest private computer network.

Today, Woolco is gone; Kmart last month filed for bankruptcy; and Target, while profitable, remains a much smaller chain than Wal-Mart.

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