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As Automation Looms, Walmart Focuses on Workers

By Daniel B. Kline – Updated Jun 9, 2019 at 8:18PM

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The company is making a big change to a signature part of its retail presentation.

Robots are coming. In fact, in limited capacities, they're already here.

Walmart (WMT -1.33%) has been using robots in its stores to measure inventory levels. The company has, so far, made it clear that its automated workforce will supplement -- not replace -- its human one.

Long term, that seems unlikely, as automated checkout and warehouse systems should eventually cut into the need for human workers. That has not happened yet, though, and the retail giant has devoted significant resources to improving the quality of life for its workforce.

That has included raising wages, offering a low-cost college option, and increasing its training efforts. Now the company has gone a step further and updated the look of the vest its employees wear.

A man wears the new Walmart vest.

Walmart is changing its vests. Image source: Walmart.

What is Walmart doing?

While the retailer should get credit for improving working conditions and offering employees more opportunities, it's doing these things out of necessity. Unemployment has been hovering near record lows, and Target, Amazon.com, and Costco all already have higher entry-level wages than Walmart.

These moves do benefit employees, but it's hard to think that Walmart has made these changes because it wanted to. The reality is that workers -- at least lower-level ones -- have choices, and the company still needs people to operate its stores.

Changing the vests continues a move the company made last year to give workers more freedom in what they wear. That went well, according to a post on the company's blog.

"The response has been amazing, and associates all over the country are bringing their personal styles to work every day," according to the post. "But one thing remained the same: the signature blue or green vest with a yellow Walmart spark. Associates love the new dress code, but they've been saying for a while now that the vests need a makeover."

These new vest come in a variety of looks, but the base model is "a neutral steel gray that blends with a wider variety of colors." Self-checkout "hosts" get a yellow vest with gray trim, while Neighborhood Market employees vests will have green trim.

"The vests have a few more upgrades to make them more useful and sustainable. For example, the fabric of each vest is made from recycled bottles," according to the blog post. "And, the pockets are bigger, so associates can carry all the equipment they need to do their jobs on the sales floor."

Why is this important?

Helping workers feel comfortable improves morale. The blue vest had become dated and, perhaps, embarrassing for some employees to wear. It's arguably cooler to work for Starbucks, Amazon, or Target than to work for Walmart. Improving the vests may remove a little bit of that stigma.

This isn't a major move for Walmart -- though it is a challenging one, given that the company has 1.5 million employees in the United States and 2.2 million globally. It's all part of a bigger trend that shows the company has decided to make an effort to think about the needs and wants of its workers.

The chain may be doing that for selfish reasons, but that doesn't stop these moves from being good for Walmart's employees. These types of initiatives should help the retailer attract and retain employees, and that's important, because while automation is coming, it's not here in a meaningful way yet. That means people remain an important part of the equation as the company continues to build out its omnichannel retail model.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Daniel B. Kline has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool recommends Costco Wholesale. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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