Experience with Wal-Mart

Around 1996 or so, between "real" jobs, I took a job as a Sales Associate at the local Wal-Mart in Michigan City, Indiana.

I was knowledgeable about computers, so they put me to work in the Electronics Department. At that time, the Electronics Department also took care of film developing.

The process was antiquated. During the day, customers would take an envelope, fill it out with their contact information, place the roll of film inside (or negatives or photos for reprints) and throw it into a bin.

Before the developing company came, we Associates would go through the bin, and log each envelope in a notebook. We would write out the envelope number and the person's last name on each line in that notebook, in the order we pulled the envelope out of the bin. There was no order to the entries; the envelope number was a unique but seemingly random number, and the person's name was not entered in alphabetical order. It would take about an hour.

When the developer came to pick up the film, they would drop off developed photos. We would then go through the bag of developed photos, one envelope at a time, then go through the notebook, scanning line by line, and check off which orders were completed. This, too, took about an hour.

When the customer came and picked up the order, they would hand us the stub of the film envelope, then we would go through the book again, looking for that number, and mark it off as being picked up. That could take a couple of minutes per customer.

The process was maddeningly inefficient. I had some skill in programming databases, so I used an MS-DOS program, called "Clarion", which allows you to create stand-alone databases. I called my program "PhotoTrax". The Electronics Department at Wal-Mart had an old PC laying around, a customer return, that we used for my program. I didn't do this for free... I sold them the program for $100.

So, instead of writing the entry in a book, we would just type in the envelope number and customer's name in the database. The time required went from one hour to around 15 minutes.

When the photos were returned, it was easy to type in the envelope number, and the program instantly found the entry, then mark that entry as being ready for pick-up. The time went from one hour to about 10 minutes.

And when the customer came to pick up the photos... that went from a couple of minutes to seconds: we would just type in the envelope number, the record is instantly found, and marked as "picked up".

So I figured the program saved the store about 2 and 1/2 manhours per day. Reckoning at $8 per hour, the program paid for itself in five days.

The Wal-mart Store Manager told the Regional Manager about this, and had me present the program at a Regional meeting. Most of the Wal-Marts in the region bought my program (Benton Harbor, Michigan; La Porte, Indiana; Niles, Michigan and Plymouth, Indiana).

Enthused, I sent out mailings to a hundred Wal-Mart stores (as sales came in, I was eventually I was planning on mailing to all 2,000 stores). I sold PhotoTrax to the Wal-Mart stores in Everett, Pennsylvania; Weston, West Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; Ottawa, Illinois; Seabrook, New Hampshire; Chandler, Arizona and Senatobia, Mississippi).

Then one day, when I came home, there was a call on my answering machine from Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. I was thrilled! Did the entire store want to buy my program for all of their stores?!?

As it turned out, they told me to stop selling my program to their stores. They said that they were working with a Japanese company to handle streamlining the photo development process.

Two things I carried away from this experience:

1) Wal-Mart had no right to tell me that I could not sell to their stores. They can tell their stores not to buy it, but they cannot tell me to whom I can sell it, or not sell it.

2) Their "Proudly Made in America" and "buying from American businesses" was hypocritical, choosing a Japanese company over me. At that time, that was their gimmick; they even used to have banners in the store proclaiming this. They do not do this anymore. Why? Is it because the average American consumer could not care less about where an item is made, just as long as they get the lowest price, "always"?