Why is this interesting? - The Bentonville Edition

On Walmart, urban planning, and what it takes to compete for talent in the digital age

Noah here. A few years ago, I was sitting at lunch in Bentonville, Arkansas, with a few folks from Walmart. Like most people that work out of headquarters, they were transplants from other places (DC and Boston if I remember correctly) and were telling me about what an amazing place this was to live. 

Bentonville, it turns out, is a city on the rise. It’s not just that the company is expanding its footprint in the town where Sam Walton first opened Walton’s Five and Dime, the store that would eventually become the largest retailer in the world. It’s that Walmart has recognized that to grow, particularly in a way that competes with technology-first retailers like Amazon, it’s got to make the area attractive in a way that compares to some of the top cities in the US. Here’s how Curbed put things in a November article

Walmart’s massive Bentonville expansion—in part an attempt to lure talent to Arkansas—stands in sharp contrast to the way other megacorporations are seeking out real estate near talent. Amazon tried to play municipalities against each other for subsidies, Google has quietly acquired extensive real estate holdings in major cities, and Apple has created an isolated spaceship campus near Silicon Valley, California, but Walmart will build its new home in the place it was born.

Why is this interesting?

First and foremost, this seems like a fascinating experiment in long-term culture-building. The shifts in Bentonville are much more significant than a new campus. They also include investing in a world-class art museum in Crystal Bridges, infrastructure to support the culinary scene (I was told, though couldn’t find references online, that a fish market was built out in the area to encourage new restaurateurs), money for education, and projects like the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 36-mile shared-use trail. 

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

The thing is, everything except the new campus isn’t actually coming from Walmart, but instead is courtesy of the Walton Family Foundation and their Home Region program. “In Northwest Arkansas,” their website explains, “we support efforts that enable one of the nation’s best places to live to further that status by building on what has always made the region special and evolving to meet the needs of a growing population of all ages, incomes and cultures.”

Of course, all of this progress doesn’t come without questions. The irony of a company well-known for the size of its parking lots and the sameness of its stores investing in creating a dense urban-like environment isn’t lost. 

Both the company and the region will be fascinating to watch over the coming years. If they succeed and manage to break free of the disease afflicting break-and-mortar retail, they’ll likely end up with excellent case studies for both business school and urban planning departments. Walmart has figured out that to win, they have to win digital. This has meant bringing Walmart.com in-house (it operated as a separate business for many years), but also attracting a new kind of talent and operating model (a big part of the huge Jet.com purchase). But it's not good enough to have some digital people in California and New Jersey, they're going to have to reinvent themselves in bigger ways, and that will require getting people to Bentonville. The company that made being the same no matter which store you visited a nearly $500 billion a year business is now reliant on differentiating the place they began to continue to compete. (NRB)

Plane of the Day:

NASA’s X-59 Quiet Supersonic Research Aircraft Cleared for Final Assembly. Per the release: “The X-59 is shaped to reduce the loudness of a sonic boom reaching the ground to that of a gentle thump, if it is heard at all. It will be flown above select U.S. communities to generate data from sensors and people on the ground in order to gauge public perception. That data will help regulators establish new rules to enable commercial supersonic air travel over land.”

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

PS - Noah here. I’ve started a new company and we are looking for a sr. backend engineer to join the team. If you are one of those or know anyone great, please share. Dinner’s on me at a restaurant of your choice if you help us find someone.


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