Wal-Mart Relaunches Web Site

Three months after Wal-Mart Stores Inc. put the brakes on its Web site redesign, the retail giant relaunched Walmart.com Jan. 1 with a new look, some new products and a few new features.

In a departure from its typical retail roots, the new site includes a travel agency and photo-processing features.

Walmart.com now offers airline, car rental and hotel booking capabilities developed by Quantum Leap Communications Inc. in Chicago.

The Bentonville, Ark., retailer has also integrated a photo-processing site, which is remotely hosted by Applied Graphics Technologies Inc. and Fuji Inc.

Other new features include a gift finder, toy finder and "click and compare," where customers can bring up three similar products and compare features.

The relaunched site also offers tens of thousands more products, and there are plans to add pharmacy services later in 2000, officials said. Wal-Mart originally established its Web site in July 1996.

"A fall launch was an expectation set on us by third parties (including analysts and the media). We're focused on getting it right for our customers," said company spokeswoman Melissa Berryhill.

Despite missing the online holiday shopping boom. Berryhill said Walmart.com saw increased toy and electronics sales over last year. But online sales "have always been a small part of our overall sales," she added. "We don't think we missed the holiday season."

"This new site represents Wal-Mart's new commitment to being an online player.

But they do have some glitchy things to overcome," said Liz Leonard, an analyst at Gomez Advisors Inc. in Lincoln, Mass.

The site is plagued with too many layers where customers have to click several times to get to their destination, she said, and product descriptions are too brief. They also plan to improve their checkout process, she said.

Some observers said Wal-Mart won't make the online splash equal to its store success or be able to compete with Amazon.com.

"Wal-Mart is not going to do to the Internet what they did to small-town America. They're facing a completely different class of competitors," said Barry Parr, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

But Leonard said Wal-Mart has a chance.

"Time will tell whether (Walmart.com) can deliver with the kind of accuracy that has given Amazon its strong brand credibility with customer service," Leonard said." There is that integration element, being able to buy something and return it to a store, that Amazon can't compete with."

Wal-Mart announced last month it would provide its own Internet service through an alliance with America Online Inc. in Dulles, Va.

Media Metrix, a tracker of Web site traffic, reported that over the five-week online holiday shopping season, Walmart.com saw an average of 396,000 unique visitors per week. Amazon.com, the most heavily trafficked site, had an average of 5.7 million unique visitors per week.

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