Five lessons from watching Sam Walton selling an ironing board cover by Paul Smith

By Paul Smith, Cal Entertainment Exclusive Speaker

Much has been studied about Sam Walton’s retail genius. But here are five simple lessons you can learn just from watching him sell an ironing board cover. . .

The grocery retail chain H.E. Butt was founded in 1905 in San Antonio, Texas. Today H-E-B is one of the leading retailers in the region and operates over 315 stores throughout Texas and Northern Mexico. Fifty-seven years after H.E. Butt began, in 1962, Sam Walton opened his first store (later named Walmart) in the neighboring state of Arkansas. Within two decades, Walmart had expanded across the country and had overtaken H-E-B as the largest retailer in Texas. It would be accurate, then, to say that H-E-B’s CEO (and grandson of the founder) Charles Butt and Sam Walton were fierce competitors—a fact that makes the following tale all the more impressive.

In an effort to learn from his now-larger competitor, Charles Butt once called Sam Walton and asked if he could bring his leadership team to Walmart’s headquarters on a learning mission. Sam said that he wasn’t sure if he could help, but he’d be happy to try. On the scheduled day, Charles Butt and his senior executives arrived and went to meet Sam at one of his local stores. As Charles walked in the front door, he could see Sam at the end of a long aisle deeply engaged in conversation with a shopper. Not wanting to waste any time, Charles walked up the aisle with his team. When Sam saw them, he said, “Charles, I’ll be with you in a moment. I’m talking to this young woman.” He was trying to sell her an ironing board cover.

After a few more minutes of conversation, the woman put the ironing board cover in her cart and pushed off toward the register. Sam turned to Charles and asked him with great seriousness, “Charles, do you know how many worn-out ironing board covers there are in this country? We’re going to sell a million this month!”

Charles commented later that he had no doubt Walmart would sell those million ironing board covers. And in fact, it did. That’s what intimate contact with the business can achieve—which is only one of many lessons Charles Butt and his team learned that day.

I think there are a number of things about Sam Walton’s values you can take away from that story. And I think they’re lessons worth learning even if you don’t work at Walmart. Here’s what I take from it:

  1. Other retailers are our competitors, not our enemies. We work in the same industry with a shared purpose: to serve the customer. If we can help each other achieve that goal without giving away our competitive secrets, we should.
  2. The customer is #1. When approached by the CEO of H-E-B and his senior executives, all of whom he had invited to fly hundreds of miles to meet with him, Sam Walton chose instead to make the CEO wait while he continued a conversation with a customer.
  3. Understanding the customer’s wants and needs is important. How did Sam know there were so many worn-out ironing board covers in the country? He asked.
  4. Persistence pays off. Valuing persistence means you don’t give up until you’ve helped the customer find what she’s looking for. Sam didn’t quit until the woman was satisfied with her choice and put the ironing board cover in her cart.
  5. Passion wins. Out of the billions of dollars of merchandise Walmart sells every year, Sam had set a goal specifically for how many ironing board covers he wanted to sell (a million this month), and he was clearly excited by the challenge. Passion is contagious. Spread it and you’ll be amazed what you can accomplish.

What other lessons do you see?

[You can find this and 100 other leadership lesson in my book, Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire. Sign up for my newsletter below to get a story a week delivered to your inbox.]