Greatest Retail Entrepreneurs of All Time

UPDATED: May 6, 2008
PUBLISHED: May 6, 2008

Aaron Montgomery Ward 1843-1913 Open your mailbox and thank Aaron Montgomery Ward for what's inside. The retail magnate is most noted for his innovation in mail-order catalogs for department stores. Working as a door-to-door salesman for a dry-goods wholesaler, he noted the disparity between the cash prices farmers received and high retail store prices. In 1872, he produced a single-sheet catalog of farming equipment at reasonable prices–the first of its kind. The catalog's popularity was immediate, growing to 150 illustrated pages in just four years. More than a decade later, sales reached $1 million. Expanding into department stores in the 1920s, which were sold in the 1990s, Montgomery Ward exists today as an online catalog.

Quote: "Even if the customer has to wait for delivery, they will make purchases via mail order if they can save money."

Sam Walton 1918-1992 There's no denying the entrepreneurial significance of Sam Walton's Wal-Mart on American society. Sure, Wal-Mart has become the punching bag for what's wrong with American big business, but Walton wasn't alone when he opened his first discount retail store in 1962. That same year, with the launch of Kmart, Woolco and Target, the nation moved away from mom-and-pop shops to big-box retailers.

Walton outpaced his competitors with aggressive expansion and growth. Like a player purchasing Monopoly houses and hotels along Marvin Gardens, Walton gobbled up property along prime intersections and rolled out new stores state-by-state in record time. Each store had formulas in place–rural locations less expensive than those in town, proximity to distribution centers to cut restocking time and computerized inventory to eliminate overstock waste. With low overhead and efficient inventory, Walton passed along the savings to the customer, true to its "low prices every day" motto, while continuing to net billions in revenue. Wal-Mart netted sales of $348.6 billion in 2007, making it the largest retailer in the world and Walton did it all with a formula for entrepreneurial success.

Quote: "Don't sequester yourself in a tower or create an isolated bubble of yes-people. Get out there and do some of the jobs that bring you into direct contact with your customers and front-line employees."

Richard Sears 1863-1914 Alvah Roebuck 1864-1948 Founded by Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck in 1893, Sears, Roebuck and Co. grew from a rural mail-order catalog to the largest retailer in the United States by the mid-20th century. Richard Sears was regarded during his lifetime as a promotional genius, and the overwhelming success of Sears "wish-book" catalog extended well into the 20th century. Although Sears has lost much of its retail dominance to Wal-Mart and other competitors, it still has a significant place in the marketplace as the anchor store in many suburban malls.

Quote: "Speak your customers' language. Don't get highfalutin' or talk down to them."

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