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Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006 04:27 am

Wal-Mart's new look

The discount retailer imposes a preppie look on employees

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The modest working-class persona is passé. Wal-Mart is on the way up!

Deciding to market to a more affluent clientele, the retailing behemoth is working up a new fancier look for its workers. Instead of the somewhat dowdy blue vests with “How May I Help You?” emblazoned on the back, the new dress code features khaki pants and navy-blue polo shirts.

Wal-Mart hired an upscale designer who sneers at the company’s old-look smocks, calling them “the lowest guppy in the pool” of retail fashion. The new polo/khaki combo, he says, “is much more business casual” than working class, asserting that Wal-Mart’s crisp preppy look “will raise the status of 1.3 million Americans” who work there.

No doubt the employees, who are paid an average of barely $17,000 a year for full-time work, would rather see their wages raised than their “status.” And some are miffed that they have to dig into their own pockets for the new-look khakis.

Let me note, though, that workers are being given one uniform choice. A big issue was whether the workers could leave the new polo shirts untucked for an even more casual feel. Yes, came the ruling from on high: “If they want to tuck it in they can,” says a spokesman. “If not, they can leave it out.” Ah . . . workplace democracy!

Meanwhile, the formerly downscale chain is also doing a merchandise makeover, stocking more expensive goods, creating a line of urban fashions, and moving so upscale that it is even advertising in Vogue magazine!

Now that Wal-Mart is selling at higher prices to higher-dollar shoppers, will it stop buying its goods on the cheap from Asian sweatshops and start paying fair wages to its workers? Nah, the bosses want a new look — not a new ethic.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist, and author.

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