What does a Wal-Mart graduation look like?

On Tuesday, at the retailer's first training academy in Minnesota, it went something like this: Its first class of graduates, mostly hourly supervisors of all ages, were clad in blue caps and gowns along with golden sashes — the company's colors.

There was a procession though two lines of high-fiving and clapping store managers while "Pomp and Circumstance" blared in the background. The podium and backdrop of the stage were made out of blue Pepsi 12-pack cartons and the ceremony itself included a Wal-Mart cheer, a flag ceremony by a local Cub Scout troop and a reading of Dr. Seuss' "Oh, the Places You'll Go."

"Boy, if this isn't Wal-Mart, then what is?" John Welling, the company's regional general manager, joked to the 60 or so graduates and another 100 people seated in the garden center of the Wal-Mart store in Maple Grove.

This particular ceremony had more bells and whistles because it doubled as a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Wal-Mart Academy at that location. It's the 15th such training academy the retailer has opened in recent months and one of 200 it plans to open around the U.S. by the end of 2017.

The training centers are one of the latest ways the nation's largest private employer is stepping up its efforts to improve its customer service as it fights tooth and nail for every sale, not only with other discounters such as Minneapolis-based Target Corp., but also online rivals such as Amazon.

"The retail world is really changing," said Welling, noting that customers have more options of where to shop these days than they did just five years ago. "We've got to adapt to that changing customer and provide them the best shopping experience — and a consistent experience — every time she comes in the store."

Wal-Mart also recently brought back greeters to the front of its stores.

Last year, executives announced a two-year $2.7 billion initiative to invest in employees through these training academies and boosted wages. It has bumped up entry-level pay to $10 for many workers and department manager pay to $15 an hour, leading other retailers to follow suit. And it has promised to offer more flexible and predictable schedules.

Labor activists, who have criticized Wal-Mart for its low wages and treatment of workers, argue these recent moves don't go far enough.

Still, Wal-Mart's actions show that it is placing a greater emphasis on customer service and employee satisfaction and training than it has in the past.

"I think they may be seeing that just focusing on being the lowest-cost store in an area is not enough to move the needle forward," said John Kammeyer-Mueller, a professor at the U's Carlson School of Management.

Another goal of the training academies, Welling said, is to give employees more confidence in how to do their jobs and to give them skills to move up in the company. Wal-Mart often boasts that 75 percent of its store managers started as hourly associates. But he acknowledged that the pathway hasn't always been very clear.

"The academies take out that element of that little bit of luck," he said. "With this training, there's no reason that with hard work that any one of you can't be" up on this stage.

The training school at Wal-Mart's Maple Grove store has been carved out of space in a backroom and includes three classrooms with TVs and computer workstations. Students are given iPads during the courses, which last two weeks for hourly supervisors and seven weeks for assistant store managers.

Their time is split between instruction in the classroom and on the sales floor, where they are taught about retail fundamentals, merchandising strategies and leadership development. They learn, for example, how to change prices and dissuade shoplifters. They also learn how to handle tough situations with customers or with other employees. Those were the kinds of lessons that previously were passed on more informally on the job from other managers.

Maple Grove has 17 dedicated trainers who will work each week with as many as 90 local Wal-Mart employees — from about half the retailer's locations in the Twin Cities. Wal-Mart will open at least one more academy in the Twin Cities and a handful around the state. Wal-Mart plans to eventually put 140,000 employees through these academies nationwide every year.

Target also offers a training and leadership development programs.

Wal-Mart's academies focus on employees in lower-level management positions.

On Tuesday, graduates walked up on the stage after their names were called and they received a rolled-up diploma certificate. They shook hands and had their picture taken as they left the stage.

One of them was Sean Little, 20, who has worked in Maple Grove as a department manager for a year.

"When I first started, it felt like I was thrown to the wolves," he said.

But after going through the training program, he said he has more tools to know how to do his job better and what Wal-Mart expects from him. He added that he felt a sense of accomplishment from the graduation ceremony.

"There's a fairly large body of evidence about the importance of ceremonies," noted Kammeyer-Mueller, the business professor. "Even if people are not getting a corner office, they're getting a different color shirt, or there's always something that seems meaningful, especially if you're going to work there for a long time. It says, 'You can build a career here.' "

Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113