This September, Walmart instituted a new policy: all employees must wear blue shirts to adhere to the company dress code, and they must pay out of pocket for them.

The outside of a Walmart store Oh, Wally World— what are you doing to your workers? Photo: Walmart Corporate via Wikimedia | CC BY 2.0

Here are the facts: Walmart used to require employees to wear khaki pants or skirts, and now they also require employees to wear a specific set of shirts under the vest that Walmart provides. This is legal because the shirts and khakis are part of a dress code and not a uniform. Companies that require uniforms have to pay for them, and companies with dress codes are allowed to put the burden of purchasing those clothes on the employees.

The Guardian covered the decision, quoting the Organization United for Respect (OUR) Walmart to highlight the main problem with this decision:

“Walmart’s new uniform policy is likely to bring Walmart $50 to $100 million to help boost struggling sales. Meanwhile, the Waltons could pay for new uniforms for every store employee with about six days of earnings from their Walmart shares.”

It’s become common knowledge that many Walmart employees are on government assistance, because their wages are so ridiculously low. So why isn’t the company footing the bill for this change?

But even if you’re not a Walmart employee, the new dress code means something big.

The most relevant part of the story for me is the rationale. Why does Walmart wants its employees to follow a stricter dress code? Gawker was able to find an internal post that explains why wearing the same clothing is important for the company:

The pride we take in our appearance should make us feel good when we help customers. It’s a reminder that each one of us is part of something big—helping millions of people save money and live better.

It’s with this goal in mind that we have made some changes to our in-store dress. Our goal:

  • To help customers easily find us—and understand who’s shopping and who’s working
  • To help drive teamwork, customer service, and sales

As someone who has shopped at Walmart largely for the convenience of it, the policy is making me think twice about that motive.

I don’t go to Walmart regularly anymore. But when I was living in rural Massachusetts, it was the closest large store that I thought I could depend on to provide a wide variety of things at any hour of the day. From a last minute Halloween costume to a fan when the air conditioning broke, Walmart was open and had what I needed. What I think I valued most about Walmart was that shopping there was easy—it’s a well-branded store, and buying things there was a familiar and routine experience.

But the Walmart uniform controversy is a reminder to think twice about the policies that that actually contribute to the easy, familiar experience that makes us a returning customer for any store. It’s a trigger, at least, to make us more self-aware about how our shopping psychology doesn’t always line up with our values.

I want to step in a store and know who to look for to ask for help. But do I want that more than I want a company to prioritize fairness for employees? Given the choice, I’d probably let my brain work a tenth of a percent harder to seek out customer service if that supported a different policy.

It takes a lot to overcome the sheer convenience of many shopping decisions that we make.

It’s certainly not news that Walmart is no winner when it comes to workers’ rights, and Walmart’s reasons for changing the dress code might not even be what was outlined in that memo. Moments like this, however, are an opportunity to peek behind the curtain of the details that make up a shopping experience—from what employees wear to how much a store blasts the air conditioning—and help us think about what we really want to value in our shopping experience.


Katy Gathright is the Special Projects Manager at Groundswell. She’s a D.C. area native, Williams College alum, and co-founder of Designed Good, an online marketplace for socially responsible products. She’s also the one constantly listening to pop culture podcasts and trying to turn them into article topics.