Book review: In Sam We Trust: The Untold Story of Sam Walton and Wal-Mart, the World’s Most Powerful Retailer

In Sam We Trust by Bob OrtegaIn Sam We Trust by Bob OrtegaIn Sam We Trust: The Untold Story of Sam Walton and Wal-Mart, the World’s Most Powerful Retailer
by Bob Ortega
Published by Three Rivers Press (March 21, 2000)
Buy it at: Amazon

The best trivia

  • Among his many other achievements, Sam Walton became an Eagle Scout at thirteen, which made him the youngest Eagle Scout in Missouri history.
  • Sam Walton and James Cash (JC) Penney met at a store—Penney showed Walton how to wrap packages using less string and paper.
  • Piggly-Wiggly’s Clarence Saunders invented the concept of self-service, where you got your own groceries off the shelf instead of having a clerk do it for you.
  • Hillary Clinton was the first woman on Wal-Mart’s board.

Walmart, for the lovers and the haters

In Sam We Trust takes its title from an internal Walmart practice of invoking Sam Walton’s name when vowing to provide quality service, and it’s a fitting title for a book that’s simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by Walmart.

The 2000 book is a little dated—some chapters on the Amazon revolution would be great—but it’s still one of the best looks at the rise of Walmart. Starting with Sam Walton’s childhood, it ventures all the way to the sweatshop scandals of the nineties. As a result, it’s a mix of business book and muckraking exposé. However, it’s better than the banalities of puffy business autobiographies or traditional business books, and Ortega’s extensive research and detailed storytelling makes the book a true page turner.

Towards the end, it becomes clear that Ortega is against Walmart’s manufacturing policies and rapid expansion across the country. However, the book is well enough researched that even Walmart fans can glean interesting tidbits about the business practices of the retailing giant. In Sam We Trust remains engaging because Ortega makes it easy to trust him.

What the book is

In Sam We Trust is a mix of business history and investigative reporting, focusing on the rise of Walmart and the story of big box retailing in general (you’ll learn about Kmart and other retailers as well as Walmart).

What the book isn’t

In Sam We Trust isn’t interested in valorizing or demonizing Sam Walton. The business book aspects are tamed by Ortega’s skeptical view of sweatshop labor, and the muckraking is restrained thanks to Ortega’s fascination with Walmart’s efficiency. Walmart lovers and haters will find something to like—and dislike—in the book.

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