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Walmart announced yesterday that it will move its apparel office out of New York City and back to Bentonville, Arkansas, reversing a move that it made back in 2009, when the company deemed it important to be more fashion-oriented.

In a memo to staffers, Andy Barron, executive vice president, softlines, for Walmart U.S., said: “When you consider our core strategy centered in basics and fashion basics, in order to execute, our offices do not need to be located in New York. Also roughly 40 percent of our apparel planning, replenishment and modular execution associates are in Bentonville today. It just makes sense to unite our apparel efforts in one location.

“The function will transition to Bentonville over the next few months, with the goal to be complete by Feb. 1. During this time, we are working with the associates in New York and hope to relocate as many as possible to Bentonville.”

The Bloomberg story about the move notes that Walmart’s “office on Broadway between 37th and 38th Streets opened in 2009 has about 275 employees handling functions including product development and buying,” and that “US Chief Executive Officer Bill Simon is focusing on basic apparel after attempts to appeal to more fashion-focused shoppers failed. Wal-Mart told investors this month that purchases of items such as socks, jeans and underwear were improving while overall comparable-store clothing sales still were declining.”

 “We don’t need to be on Broadway to sell socks and underwear and T-shirts,” David Tovar, a Walmart spokesman, told Bloomberg.

The move will result in some personnel changes, Bloomberg writes:

“ Senior Vice President Lisa Rhodes, who currently heads the apparel business, will leave in July after a transition period, Tovar said. Wal-Mart promoted executives Jeff Evans and Marybeth Cornwell to run portions of the unit after Rhodes leaves.

“Rhodes was the unit’s third leader in the past five years.Segment chief Dottie Mattison resigned in July 2010 as her push for more colorful items and exclusive brands, including one from pop star Miley Cyrus, failed to lift sales. Her predecessor, Claire Watts, left in 2007 after failing to make Wal-Mart’s apparel appeal to fashion-focused shoppers with ads in Vogue magazine and new lines like Metro 7.”
KC's View:
So can we assume that Walmart is going to stop making noise about being in the fashion business, and just go with the reality that it is in the socks and underwear and t-shirts business?

Or will the Bentonville Behemoth at some point suggest that Arkansas is the real center of the fashion universe?

So let’s see. Walmart is in the fashion business, then out of the fashion business. Opening offices in New York, then closing them. Closing its Marketside small store format even as it open small store Express stores. Improving its health care coverage for employees, then reducing it. Reducing selection, then increasing selection. Pledging that it will match competitors’ prices through the holidays, but not online competitors’ prices.

I’m all in favor of adjusting to changing market conditions, but a guy could get whiplash just trying to keep track of Walmart’s various moves.

On the one hand, it looks like Walmart is just cutting all the dead wood, trying to focus on the stuff that’s really important. But there also is a sense of desperation.

Look at all these changes, and it isn’t hard to imagine that at some point in the near future, Walmart will shut down its Northern California offices and move its dot-com operations to Arkansas (which in addition to being the center of the fashion universe, also is a core hub for all internet innovation).

I thought that the reason Walmart thought it was important to open fashion offices in New York and dot-com offices in Northern California because the company needed to have a more expansive view of the world, and that it made sense to make sure that at least some people in the company were not drinking the same Kool-aid every morning, not going to the same restaurants, churches and country clubs, not living the same lifestyle with the same friends.

But maybe that’s not so important anymore ... but maybe it isn’t important anymore because Walmart is taking the short view, not the long view. Or maybe, Walmart now is taking the long view, when it was taking the short view.

Like I said, a guy could get whiplash....