Wal-Mart Wants to Break Into the Ivy League Recruiting Circuit

  • At Penn career fair, retailer tries to spark culture change
  • As long as I don’t have to move to Bentonville, undergrad says

The purple recreational vehicle rumbled into a parking place across the street from the University of Pennsylvania career fair on a sunny Friday last month.

It was the latest stop for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in its recruitment tour of more than a dozen top colleges. Along with free pizza and tchotchkes to take home, the biggest U.S. retailer had a pitch that few Ivy Leaguers have heard before: Come work for Wal-Mart.

The Wal-Mart campus recruitment RV.

Photographer: Charles Mostoller/Bloomberg

Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon promised investors last year that Wal-Mart would “look even more like a tech company” to counter the growing threat of Amazon.com Inc. “We know we have to change,” he said.

The purple embodiment of that change is now something he can tout at the retailer’s annual investor day on Tuesday. Signs of Wal-Mart’s attempts to morph from a stodgy brick-and-mortar retailer into a sleek e-commerce player will be everywhere: the $3.3 billion purchase of e-commerce site Jet.com, its partnership with Google on voice-activated shopping and a website that now boasts 67 million products, a fivefold increase from last year. That’s helped accelerate recent online-sales growth to about 60 percent, four times the pace of the broader e-commerce sector.

Cultural Change

But such moves won’t matter much in the long run if the company’s culture doesn’t change. To that end, Wal-Mart overhauled its campus recruiting program this year to lure more applicants from top-flight colleges: students who typically juggle offers from Google and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Historically, Wal-Mart found most of its entry-level executives at state schools within a day’s drive from its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Many of these new hires will end up working far from Arkansas, at Wal-Mart’s sprawling online business, which includes millennial-friendly brands such as Bonobos, ModCloth and Moosejaw and maintains offices in New York and San Francisco.

Wal-Mart recruiters with University of Pennsylvania students.

Photographer: Charles Mostoller/Bloomberg

They’ll be people like Penn senior Aaron Lai, a computational biology major from Amazon’s hometown of Seattle. Lai said that “Wal-Mart is not the sexiest brand to work for’’ but was intrigued by the data-analytics side of retail work. So he listened to Wal-Mart’s recruiters.

Hiring students like Lai won’t be easy as Wal-Mart still has “a ways to go’’ before it’s considered in the same ranks as tech luminaries like Amazon, Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, according to Scott Dobroski of career website Glassdoor. But the purple RV -- the color adorns Jet’s shipping boxes and all its ads -- is a good step, he said.

Fully Aligned

The full-court press is happening now because “for the first time, we’re coming together as a family of brands,’’ said Evan Woods, a Twitter Inc. veteran who now heads digital marketing for Wal-Mart’s e-commerce recruiting efforts. “In the past we said, ‘Here’s Jet, here’s Wal-Mart.’ Now we’re fully aligned.’’

That alignment was on full display inside the RV in Philadelphia, where a map of the U.S. took up the entire back wall, highlighting the nine locations where jobseekers could end up working. Flat-screen TVs on another wall looped a video of bright-eyed employees eating free snacks in Jet’s headquarters in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Upon entering the vehicle, one curious visitor asked, “So, Jet is Walmart.com?’’ That summed up the branding challenge Wal-Mart faces as it keeps adding to its online family.

Still, having the world’s largest retailer as a parent company has advantages. One student, a sophomore from the Bay Area, said working for Wal-Mart appealed to her because “I can see my work on the shelf. It’s tangible.’’

Virtual Shopping

A half-dozen iPads were on hand inside the RV, ostensibly to showcase a virtual-shopping experience, but they weren’t working -- a sign, perhaps, of Wal-Mart’s status as new kid on the digital block.

“When people think of Amazon, they think tech,” said Barbara Hewitt, a senior associate director in Penn’s Career Services office. “I don’t think people associate that with Wal-Mart, but that’s certainly where they’re going.’’

The journey isn’t cheap. The company might be known for pinching pennies, but it’s sparing no expense to lure top talent. According to Glassdoor, the e-commerce unit is among the top 25 highest-paying employers in the country, just behind Microsoft Corp. and ahead of Twitter.

“If they want to pour on the tech talent, there’s no better way than to offer great pay,’’ Glassdoor’s Dobroski said. But to keep employees, companies must offer a great culture and career-advancement opportunities, he added.

Whether Wal-Mart will find success rests largely with its ability to steer Ivy Leaguers away from rival Amazon, in much the same way it offers two-day free shipping on Walmart.com to compete with Amazon Prime.

At the Penn career fair, that courtship process enticed Sarah Fox, a senior environmental-science major from Westport, Connecticut. She wandered into Wal-Mart’s RV because a retail supply-chain role sounded like something she might try.

But not if she had to move to Arkansas. “That,’’ she said, “would be a deal breaker.’’

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