Wal-Mart Poised to Replace Sears as Largest Retailer

Article excerpt

NEW YORK - When customers enter a Wal-Mart store, the employees are waiting, ready to greet the new arrivals like old friends. And when shoppers walk down the store's well-stocked aisles, they find prices that undercut those of other retailers.

Customer service and low pricing are the secrets of success at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., one of the most admired retailers in the country. They are also the reasons why the discount store chain is poised to supplant Sears, Roebuck and Co. as the nation's largest retailer - just as Sears is struggling to hold on to its waning market share.

For the just-ended 1990 fiscal year, Sears' total sales reached $33.95 billion, while Wal-Mart took in $32.6 billion in business. The gap between the two retailers is likely to close in the near future - while Sears' sales rose 1.5 percent last year, Wal-Mart's leaped by 26 percent.

Some of Wal-Mart's surge has come from the nearly 200 stores the company has opened during the past year. But sales also jumped 10 percent at existing stores.

Those gains outstrip the performance of other retailers during the same period. For example, Kmart Corp., which Wal-Mart surpassed in November as the nation's second-largest retailer, had a 9.9 percent rise in overall sales and a 1.9 percent gain at stores open for at least a year.

Analysts who have tracked Wal-Mart's success say the enthusiastic attitude found throughout Wal-Mart is its life blood and comes straight from the retailer's founder and chairman, Sam Walton.

Walton is credited with galvanizing his troops over the years the same way a football coach rallies a team before a game.

``Most of the employees feel as if they are part of Sam Walton's extended family,'' Joseph Ronning, an analyst with Brown Brothers Harriman Inc., said recently.

Ronning said Wal-Mart employees are included in the decision-making process more so than workers at other retail companies. Stores are encouraged to come up with their own marketing ideas and displays and those who turn the biggest profits are rewarded. …