Perhaps the best known and most successful big-box store chain in the world, Walmart’s 62-year history has been marked by explosive growth fueled by thrifty, innovative business practices.

After its first location was opened in 1962 by Sam Walton in Rogers, Arkansas, Walmart seemingly became an overnight sensation in the world of discount retail. 

Decade after decade, the chain began turning over millions – and soon, billions – in revenue each year, entering the 21st century as one of the largest brands in both the U.S. and around the world.

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Here is a closer look at how it all happened. 

Sam Walton

Walton was born in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in 1918, and he spent most of his childhood and adolescence in Columbia, Missouri. Walton, a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet, attended the University of Missouri, graduating in 1940 with his bachelor’s degree in economics.

Three days after graduating, Walton began working for JCPenney as a management trainee, a position he held until 1942, when he enlisted in the Army.

Sam Walton established the first Walmart stores in Rogers, Arkansas, and Harrison, Arkansas, in 1962. (Photos by Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images / Getty Images)

After leaving the military, Walton purchased a Ben Franklin variety store in Arkansas, operating under a business model not unlike the one undertaken by Walmart later in his career.

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Walton served as Walmart’s CEO from its establishment in 1962 until 1988 and remained the company’s chairman until his death in 1992. Walton, who was being treated for multiple myeloma, was reportedly reviewing sales data from his hospital bed just days before he died.

Humble Beginnings

While operating his Ben Franklin branch, Walton adopted a business model that focused on making his stores competitive by buying up low-cost goods and selling them at lower prices than his competitors – in theory, despite turning over a lower profit margin, higher demand and, in turn, higher sales volume, would compensate for it.

Walton’s 5-10, one of Sam Walton’s pre-Walmart businesses that he established in Bentonville, Arkansas, now serves as a museum and tourist attraction. (Photo by Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images / Getty Images)

Walton quickly found himself proven right, with revenue more than doubling from $105,000 to $250,000 in his first five years of ownership. 

His good fortune persisted across other business ventures. After failing to renew his Ben Franklin lease, Walton opened Walton’s 5-10, a discount store in Bentonville, Arkansas, that now serves as the Walmart Museum. Shortly afterward, he opened the Wal-Mart Discount City store in nearby Rogers – now recognized as the first store operated under the Walmart brand proper.

Walmart’s Rise to Prominence

By the end of 1962, Walton was operating two stores under the Walmart brand’s umbrella – the inaugural Rogers location, and another in Harrison. 

Growth continued throughout the 1960s, and by 1967, there were two dozen Walmart stores across Arkansas that had brought in a cumulative $12.7 million in sales. 

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In 1968, the first two Walmart stores outside Arkansas – located in Claremore, Oklahoma, and Sikeston, Missouri – opened. In 1969, the company officially incorporated as Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., and became publicly traded a year later. By 1972, the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

By 1980, Walmart was employing 21,000 people in 276 stores across 10 states and was pulling in $1 billion worth of annual sales. In 1983, the first Sam’s Club – a Walmart-owned chain of Costco-like, membership-based warehouses – opened in Oklahoma.

The company also expanded over the course of the 1980s through its acquisitions of large regional department store chains – like Kuhn’s Big K in the Deep South – and was operating in 27 states by the end of the decade, boasting $26 billion in yearly sales.

Walmart today

Today, Walmart runs over 10,500 stores in some 19 countries, employing over 2.1 million people worldwide – 1.6 million of whom are based in the U.S.

Walmart is currently the largest retailer in the U.S. and the world. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images / Getty Images)

The company sustained unprecedented levels of growth throughout the 1990s, entering the new millennium with over a million employees at nearly 4,000 locations across the globe. After Walton’s death, his eldest son and heir to the family fortune, Rob, became the chairman of Walmart’s board, a position he held until 2015.

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Walmart has also undertaken a number of community outreach ventures over the past few years – including a mass vaccination campaign during the coronavirus pandemic and a robust program that covers its associates’ college expenses.



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