retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Walmart announced this week a series of decisions designed to make its stores more employee-friendly, including adjusting the air conditioning in many stores to make them less cold, relaxing the dress code so that store employees can wear jeans or denim pants, and bringing back a music service that uses a DJ to play a variety of songs and not just the same Celine Dion and Justin Bieber albums that often play all day.

The New York Times writes that "the overtures - however small they seemed - are part of Walmart’s effort to project an image of a more caring employer." And they come in concert with pay increases for some half-million employees around the country.

The Times writes: "Long a target of protests over low wages and rigid work schedules, Walmart is appearing to appease employees in the face of rising competition to hire and retain workers as the job market rebounds. Other retail chains, like Ikea and Gap, have also started to offer higher wages for store employees.

"Walmart is also trying to cast off an image as an exploitative employer with an army of minimum-wage workers, some of whom reportedly depend on food stamps or other government aid. Now, after the latest wage increases, all Walmart workers make above the minimum wage, the retailer says. Walmart also is trying to improve customer service as it struggles with sluggish sales at its supercenters and neighborhood markets."

Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran, in a speech to about 3,000 employees who came to Bentonville for the company's annual shareholders meeting, said that "there is nothing I like better than hearing about your jobs, your ideas, your hopes and dreams, your frustrations and listening to how we can make your lives easier."

Walmart U.S. COO Judith McKenna added: "You told us we've made it harder for you to do what you do best, which is serving our customers. Your feedback is helping us understand how we support you better and remove the distractions that get in your way. Taking care of our customers begins with taking care of you. It's that simple. My commitment to you is that we will continue to listen, and, more importantly, act on what we hear."

The Fortune coverage of the meeting reports that Foran "will need to have these workers on side as he looks to build on the three straight quarters of comparable sales growth, a streak that started after nearly two years of stagnation. And more shoppers have been coming into stores for two quarters running. But the recovery is fragile, and Walmart knows it needs to keep improving customer service.

"Foran also talked about a new push he called the '10-feet rule.' Associates must greet customers and make eye contact when they are within 10 feet as a way to lift sales. He also announced an extension of a tactic implemented during the holiday season that called for all registers to be staffed at peak hours. Walmart will now keep more registers open during the busiest hours on weekends outside the Christmas period."
KC's View:
First of all, any corporate policy that saves employees from having to listen to Celine Dion and Justin Bieber needs to be applauded.

Listen ... it is going to take a long time and a lot of effort for Walmart to make any list of "preferred employers." But it does seem like CEO Doug McMillon and his team understand the company's cultural, economic and technological challenges, and are actually trying to deal with them. They can't do business the same old way, and so they are adjusting - probably not fast enough for some, but they are adjusting nonetheless.