story by Julie Bagley
Coming off the 50th anniversary of Wal-Mart, the Walmart Visitor Center in Bentonville, Ark., saw an increase in visitors and will continue to add new features to its museum.
The Walmart Visitor Center was renovated in 2011 in anticipation of the retailer’s anniversary and the opening of Crystal Bridges Museum. Before the renovation, nearly 60,000 people walked through the visitor’s center to glimpse into the company’s history dating back before 1992.
“Everything stopped back in 1992,” said Alan Dranow, senior director of Heritage and Associate Marketing.” When we added countries, we added countries but it wasn’t interactive.”
The renovation, which Walmart won’t put a price tag on, took the Terry Block building on the Bentonville square down and the Walton 5&10 to the studs.
“We gutted the buildings and put in new steel frames and did a lot of work to preserve these buildings,” Dranow said.
He said he was proud of the way Walmart preserved the buildings and operated the project when they could have easily been torn down. During the process, a lot of hidden gems were found in between the walls of the buildings.
“We found wallpaper from what was a wallpaper shop on the second floor. Some that was made with actual silver,” Dranow said.
An advertising poster dating back to the 1950s was also found between the buildings. Dranow said this cleared up some Bentonville history because it was once believed the 5&10 building was older than the Terry Block building but the poster proves otherwise.
While the new visitor center is more interactive and family friendly, it doesn’t forget its roots and gives a nod to the 1950s. The Spark Café is a converted 1950s soda fountain. Walmart partnered with Coca-Cola and Yarnell’s ice cream to deliver the experience.
“We even have a special brand color blue and yellow ice cream called spark cream,” Dranow said.
When visitors enter the center, they see a candy and toy store dating back to the past.
“[Baby] boomers will remember the candy and kids will learn about it. Now who’s not going to love that?”
The rest of the center can be seen as a potential recruiting tool for Walmart.
“When you are recruited (to work) for Walmart, we are recruiting your families. Spouses and children can get an appreciation for Walmart,” Dranow explained.
Now, up to 150,000 visitors a year walk through the interactive history of the company and how it came to be the world’s largest retailer. There are approximately 3,800 artifacts in display cases along with touch tables as well as interactive displays of the company’s expansion into the international market as well as Sam’s Club and Neighborhood Market.
Personal objects remain from the pre-renovation visitor center including Sam Walton’s pick-up truck and photographs of his hunting dogs which inspired the name of the retailer’s dog food, “Ol’ Roy.”
Walton’s office is preserved within the center of the museum as well as Helen Walton’s wedding dress.
“The impact of the museum is they will get the complete story,” Dranow said.
This year visitors will see additional exhibits, special promotions in front of the center and a special lecture series. The center will contain an oral history program and a continuation of recording Walmart retirees, veterans and executives stories.
“Visitors can watch these interviews on the screens in the galleries. People who have a long history and have a lot to say about Walmart.”
Another addition will be a special exhibit to Sam’s love of aviation. He was known to fly over different parts of the country to scope out new locations. He believed it provided the best vantage point to see real estate, traffic flow and other factors.
Dranow also hinted the Walmart Visitor Center is looking into expansion but was coy on the details.
“If you haven’t been to the visitor center in a year, you need to come back,” Dranow said, “This is not just a place you come once. Between the different displays of different divisions we’ve added and special features it’s intended for people to come back.”