Most Powerful Women

Wal-Mart: The new Neiman Marcus?

October 4, 2011: 1:04 AM ET

Here's what the recession looks like from Wal-Mart's view: Scrambling to cater to the Neiman Marcus customer and figuring out how to train lawyers as cashiers.

FORTUNE – How badly is the tepid economic recovery weighing on U.S. families?

Rosalind Brewer Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit

Wal-Mart's Rosalind Brewer

On Monday, Wal-Mart (WMT) Executive Vice President Rosalind Brewer offered sobering insight into the recession's lasting impact on households. Some might call this the so-called "new normal," but Brewer says the downturn has not only changed the way consumers shop but it has also changed the way Wal-Mart has been doing business. Admittedly, Brewer said, the retailer was slow to respond.

"We did not react quickly enough because we thought the recession would turn around a little bit quicker like everyone else," Brewer said on Monday during a panel discussion called "Leading in Tumultuous Times" at Fortune's Most Powerful Women's Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif.

As talk grows that the U.S. could slip into another recession, here's a glimpse of Wal-Mart's new economic normal and how the retailer has been adjusting.

Wal-Mart is the new Neiman Marcus: Wal-Mart may have attracted more lower-end shoppers during normal economic times, but shoppers who once frequented luxury retailer Neiman Marcus are increasingly turning to the discount retailer. Brewer said this caught Wal-Mart by surprise, as the retailer didn't carry merchandise that would cater to the new consumers.

Black Friday redefined: U.S. shoppers might think the biggest shopping day of the year is the day after Thanksgiving, but just before midnight during the first of each month could be a contender. That's when those on government assistance see their payments kick in and Wal-Mart stores are flooded with midnight customers buying basic items ranging from baby formula to milk and eggs. Because the influx occurs when stores were more sparsely staffed, the retailer had to hire more midnight cashiers as well as change when it replenished its shelves.

Lawyers competing for Wal-Mart jobs: For every new Wal-Mart that opens in the U.S., the retailer typically hires about 450 workers.  Since the downturn, the number of applicants has grown to about 5,000 to 6,000 applicants per store. And, much to the surprise of Brewer and Wal-Mart, applicants include a ever wide-ranging mix to include everyone from lawyers to real estate executives. While the applicant pool is still dominated by jobless 30-somethings, Brewer said the retailer has had to train a group of higher-skilled workers without cashier experience.

Indeed, this a time for "calm, rational leadership," Brewer said.

Check out our additional coverage from Fortune's Most Powerful Women summit

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About This Author
Nin-Hai Tseng
Nin-Hai Tseng
Writer, Fortune

Nin-Hai Tseng covers economics and finance. Before joining Fortune, Tseng was a reporter at The Orlando Sentinel and a public affairs associate at GE. She holds an MPA from Columbia University and a BS in Journalism from the University of Florida. She lives in New York City.

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