SUPPORT SYSTEM; Guess Who's Got His Back?
By MICHAEL BARBARO, Published: May 1, 2006
Sam's Club executives call such products ''affordable luxury'' and say they carry only carefully selected bargains, even if the bargain is a $169,000 diamond ring (which sits, with little fanfare, in the jewelry case of the Springdale, Ark., store just a few miles from Wal-Mart's headquarters).
The corporate culture of Sam's Club intentionally mirrors that of a small business, with an emphasis on the personal touch —a challenge for what is, after all, one division of an international retailing colossus with $300 billion in annual revenue.
Every month, Wal-Mart's technology office produces a new list of businesses that have moved into the commercial area near a Sam's Club store, a list gleaned from public records like change-of-address forms. Two sales representatives, assigned to each club store, fan out to recruit those new businesses every week, knocking on doors rather than leaving telephone messages.
Stores hold breakfasts for small-business members several times a year, often inviting one local company to make a presentation. And every manager at the company, from store managers to the chief executive, is required to work at a small business one day a year to better understand its needs.
That personal touch has given Sam's a cultlike following, and has helped turn at least one of its members into a supplier. Sam's employees who ventured into a restaurant run by Debra Hopkins, a Sam's member in Hawaii, eventually decided to stock her barbecue sauce in their stores.
''There really is a small-town feel to it,'' said Judi Brenstein of Customer Synergy. She said she was on a first-name basis with the manager of her local Sam's Club, who has told her to call him, personally, if she needs anything.
''A lot of people pay lip service to helping out small business,'' she said. ''Sam's Club really does.''