With 25 Years in the Can, We’re Toasting Sam’s Cola

By Randy Reeves
June 30, 2016
Five Sam's Cola soda cans are side-by-side on a table

Excitement is bubbling in our beverage aisles this summer as we celebrate a major milestone for one of our first private brand items.

Sam’s Cola is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. I’m part of the beverage team who worked to refresh the taste of this iconic item ahead of this anniversary. Along the way, I found some interesting things.

While the ingredients have stayed the same, we do occasionally tweak formulation to ensure we’re delivering what customers want. The formula hadn’t been updated for some time until recently, when third-party testing showed it could use tinkering. It’s all about how our customers see quality.

While today’s customers are used to seeing retailers provide store-brand options, Sam’s Cola was a very new thing in 1991. The soda was one of three private brands launched in our grocery business.

Mark Clark, a member of the original carbonated soft drinks team for Walmart U.S. who now works in dry grocery and global food sourcing, once said, “If it hadn’t have been for the success of Sam’s American Choice [the soda’s name at the time], there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have done Great Value.”  He’s right.

Sam’s Cola paved the way for our private brands that customers love, like Great Value, Sam’s Choice and Marketside. Our private brands play a big role in how we help people save money without sacrificing quality. Plus, coming up with exciting new items within our private brands assortment is one of the reasons why I love working at Walmart.

Our founder, Sam Walton, was hesitant to go into the private label soda business. When the team approached him about launching what was then Sam’s American Choice, he had two requests: First, it had to be as good, if not better, than the national brands. Second, it had to be priced at a great value to the customer. Today, we still deliver a great item worthy of his name.

The idea started brewing when David Glass, then our chief executive officer, noticed a price and quality gap between national brands and other items on the market. He tasked merchants to come up with a unique-tasting soda that would please customers and help them save money.

Dallas Dobbs, who was also part of the original team, said it wasn’t easy breaking into the soda business in those days.

“Our job is to sell what the customers buy. We don’t create demand; we satisfy it,” explained Dallas, who is now a senior buyer.

The flavors were difficult to come up with, Dallas says, but the team ended up developing a high-quality product – and they did it with amazing speed. It took just three and a half months to go from pitching the idea to putting the product on store shelves. And, can you believe Doug McMillon, our current president and CEO, was the very first merchant for Sam’s Cola?

I’m particularly proud that ever since that first can, Sam’s Cola has been made in the United States. Sam was passionate about supporting U.S. manufacturing and approved production of the original cola in Columbus, Georgia. It launched in 2,300-plus stores with three versions: Cola, Diet Cola and Caffeine Free Diet Cola. Today, this customer favorite is sold in more than 4,600 Walmart stores across the U.S.

Look for special packaging featuring the original Walton 5 &10 store and Sam Walton’s pickup on large packs of Sam’s Cola through October and help us celebrate the 25th anniversary of a product that continues to be made with the customer in mind.