FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Wal-Mart better keep its employees happy, because it needs to hire 800,000 more globally in the next five years to man all the square footage it’s adding to the empire. That’s more workers than the entire domestic textile industry employs.

Aside from sustaining its great sales and profit growth rate, Wal-Mart’s major challenge is finding new workers, even though unemployment is high.

That message came clear at Wal-Mart’s annual shareholders meeting Friday at the Bud Walton Arena here. The company hammered messages of corporate ownership, career opportunity and advancement for women and minorities at the five-hour meeting, which serves as much as a pep rally as a financial recap.

“That is the challenge — developing and retaining good people,” said chairman Rob Walton. The retailer has about 1 million employees in the U.S. and another 300,000 abroad.

Susan Chambers, senior vice president of benefits, told associates to expect more stories about their achievements in community media. “We’re not only celebrating the individual,” she said. “We’re helping our customers and communities understand how great the jobs we have are.”

After the meeting, William Blair analyst Mark Miller posed the question, “How long can Wal-Mart go without some component of the company becoming unionized?” That, he added, “is the biggest risk here.”

To help equate ownership with loyalty, the famous Wal-Mart cheer has been amended to include the line “Whose Wal-Mart is it?”

When that question came over the loudspeaker, the 4,000 or so associates roared back, “It’s my Wal-Mart.” Thus far, Wal-Mart has fended off unionizations, although it has not been able to duck personnel issues, including one potential class-action suit alleging systematic discrimination against women.

Aside from people concerns, Wal-Mart is rethinking its box, where it’s perennially tinkering. Green-and-taupe exterior facades, instead of blue, as well as drive-through pharmacies; wireless devices to help customer service staff communicate on the floor, and a seatless conference room at headquarters are all being tested.

The conference room, called the Winner’s Win room, is a utilitarian space with a scoreboard on back and hightop, bar-style tables to discourage idle chatters. “You can’t sit back and get comfortable,” said Tom Coughlin, newly promoted executive vice president, and president and chief executive of Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. “When we tried this, meetings went from two-and-a-half hours to an hour and fifteen minutes.”Tom Schoewe, executive vice president and chief financial officer, reviewed fiscal 2003, citing revenues at $245 billion, up 12 percent, and net income at $8 billion, with a 16 percent earnings per share growth. Inventory turns improved to 7.6 and shrinkage fell to 3.35 percent. The company stemmed its three-year return-on-asset decline, posting a 9.2 percent increase.

Expansion remains the most aggressive in retail, with some $11 billion allocated to add 48 million square feet spread over 350 stores. Supercenters remain the driving format, with 200 to 210 planned to open in fiscal 2004.

Apparel remains a high priority, which was evident when international division president and ceo John Menzer appeared in an outfit entirely purchased at Wal-Mart. It included a George black business suit and red tie, and underneath, Simply Basic boxer shorts. Total cost: $94.66. Also, models paraded in George, Canadian junior label 725 and B.U.M. young men’s garb, available in Wal-Mart stores in Canada and Argentina.

Interspersed between the financial and fashion presentations, there were performances by bagpipe-playing brothers who stomped and sweated all over the stage, gospel singer Amy Grant and two store associate crooners who won Wal-Mart’s version of American Idol. But it was Coughlin who brought the house down when he inadvertently caught sight of the back of his head on the big screen. “Wow, I’m going bald,” he said. “I should put a smiley on that.”

The conservative Wal-Mart also announced Friday that it is rolling out magazine racks that partly cover the racy headlines of four publications: Hearst Corp.’s Redbook, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire and Condé Nast’s Glamour. The magazines, which give advice on sex, will be available in full view at the back of Wal-Mart stores. The retailer had previously banned laddie mags Maxim, Stuff and FHM.

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