Palo Alto, Arkansas

Now what do we call

Wal-Mart announced Thursday that it's staking its own claim to the Net, spinning off a separate Internet company, If the name isn't a surprise, the announcement itself was, at least according to the Wall Street Journal, which joined CBS MarketWatch as one of few outlets to get out a full story Thursday night.

"Unexpected," wrote the Journal's Emily Nelson and Kara Swisher, who noted that Wal-Mart's site - previously an online placeholder - surfaced from the depths less than a week ago with a relaunch. All of a sudden, the company appears ready to do e-business, and the site's wide-ranging offerings - from travel bookings to potting soil - threaten to make offline supercenters look like niche plays. So far, no one's expressed doubt that Wal-Mart can catch up to, the Net venture Kmart has begun with Softbank.

As Wal-Mart enters e-commerce in earnest, it's holding hands with Silicon Valley VC firm Accel, which will take an undisclosed chunk of the dot-com in exchange for an undisclosed stack of cash, and good old-fashioned Valley know-how. The retail giant has also elected to base its dot-child in Palo Alto, Calif., rather than Bentonville, Ark.

Curiously, both the Journal and a Bloomberg report on pegged Wal-Mart's deal with Accel as a sign of the retailer's skittishness in jumping into e-commerce. Since when did partnering become cause for shame? Should Wal-Mart apologize, too, for going to AOL last month to create a cobranded Internet access service? Others argued that Wal-Mart was showing signs of Net savvy. It's moving online before it really needs to do so, as MarketWatch's Tom Bemis noted, since offline sales are soaring: Wal-Mart Stores reported sales of $24.1 billion for December, a 26 percent increase from a year ago. Thursday, the company's stock was trading above $63, just a couple of bucks under Amazon's price - and that's before Wal-Mart made its dot-com announcement.

Those numbers should be enough to keep Jeff Bezos awake in the dark, worried that the next pile of Internet cash will create a Walton family mountain.

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