Correction to This Article
A June 27 article about the growth of upscale retailing around Wal-Mart's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., misstated the location of Rogers, a neighboring city. It is southeast, not north, of Bentonville.

Upscale Tastes Invade Wal-Mart's Hometown

Benton County, Ark., once a sedate backwater, is quickly morphing into a swanky, sushi-bar-filled enclave in the middle of the Ozarks. (Spencer Tirey -- For the Post).
Benton County, Ark., once a sedate backwater, is quickly morphing into a swanky, sushi-bar-filled enclave in the middle of the Ozarks. (Spencer Tirey -- For the Post).
By Michael Barbaro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 27, 2005

BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- Wal-Mart's folksy, baseball cap-wearing founder, Sam Walton, so despised public displays of wealth that, after his death in 1992, the billionaire's heirs decided to enshrine his prized possession, a battered Ford pickup, behind a simple storefront on the town square here.

But Walton's spirit of restraint is harder to find next door to the museum at Fusion, a new fine-arts gallery that sells $2,500 abstract paintings and $1,200 urns. Or at the nearby Landers Hummer dealership, crowded with $62,000 sport-utility trucks. Or inside Shadow Valley, a gated community where four-bedroom houses fetch $1 million.

The hard-nosed retailing tactics of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have transformed communities across the country, but none more so than the one in its own back yard. Benton County, once a sedate backwater, is quickly morphing into a swanky oasis in the middle of the Ozarks.

Wal-Mart's unchallenged dominance in American retailing--it now sells about 30 percent of many household consumables--has persuaded scores of suppliers to open satellite offices around its headquarters to ensure their products remain on the chain's coveted shelves.

The result is an unprecedented migration of high-paid executives to the northwest corner of Arkansas -- professionals from amenity-rich cities like New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and Miami, who bring not only their six-figure salaries, but an appetite for Jaguars, sushi, pet day-care centers, Gucci shoes and Chanel sunglasses.

Every week or so a new retailer, restaurant or spa sprouts up amid the cow patches here to satisfy their every need and, seemingly overnight, a county synonymous with a purveyor of cheap socks, dolls and televisions is earning a reputation for something altogether different: luxurious living.

Until recently, being dispatched to a supplier's Wal-Mart office was a dreaded assignment -- two years of eating at a nearby Applebee's and shopping at, well, Wal-Mart. "Nobody wanted to do it," said Ron Johnson, who runs the Wal-Mart office for Walt Disney Co.'s consumer products division. "That's not a problem anymore. So much has changed."

Wal-Mart has produced a fair share of millionaires, but Walton's rigid code of humility -- even top executives stay at a Holiday Inn when traveling on the company dime -- remains deeply ingrained in the company's culture, discouraging conspicuous consumption.

Wal-Mart's suppliers, however, honor no such vow of modesty.

In Rogers, just north of Bentonville, nattily dressed executives from Kellogg Co. and Colgate-Palmolive Co. sip lattes and lunch on cold Thai salmon at the Market, a gourmet grocery store that offers sushi-making lessons. Up the street, at Murphy's Jewelry, the latest Versace fashion show flickers on a flat-panel television and $100,000 necklaces glimmer from behind a glass case.

Jeff Collins, an economist the University of Arkansas's Sam Walton School of Business, said the thousands of suppliers who have moved to the region are "trying to recreate the world they knew back home, wherever that was, and they have the money to do it."

From 1990 to 2000, Benton County's population jumped 57 percent, to 153,406 from 97,499, while the average household income rose to $40,281 from $26,021, according to census data.


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