June 18, 2007 — -- As retail giant Wal-Mart is marking its 47th year, the empire is making some surprising changes.
The emperor's getting new clothes: polos and khakis, to be exact. And for the 1.3 million U.S. Wal-Mart employees the new policy is preppy.
"The vest is being retired and replaced with this dress-code look that actually has our customers saying that they can see our associates more prominently in the stores," said Celia Swanson, of Wal-Mart.
Employees at the home store in Rogers, Ark., seemed excited to embrace the latest fashion.
"You feel more professional with it," said one Wal-Mart employee. "Before ,when we didn't have a dress code and you could wear jeans or shorts or whatever, customers didn't always know who the employees were. "
The wardrobe change is part of a larger corporate overhaul for a retailer that's been struggling to increase sales and rejuvenate its stock price.
Last year Wal-Mart's same-store sales increased the smallest amount in more than 20 years. And a recently leaked internal corporate memo expressed concerns about a new initiative to sell high-end goods.
"Shareholders are unhappy," said The Wall Street Journal's Allen Murray. "They need to do something to jump-start sales in their stores. I don't think a change to new uniforms is gonna be the magic key."
The iconic blue vests millions of Americans have come to identify with the low-cost retailer will be recycled into materials to help armed forces overseas. Those materials will include lap blankets for the wounded and land cards that soldiers can use to write to their loved ones, said Swanson.
While some analysts have applauded Wal-Mart's efforts to reinvigorate the brand, others warn eliminating something so closely identified with the store was not the change needed.