BOSTON — Walmart.com, positioning itself to grab a slice of the $8 billion online apparel market, fired up its home page Tuesday morning with a shot of a fall George argyle sweater and placed an ad proclaiming “It’s Here! Apparel at Walmart.com” on Yahoo’s home page.

The world’s biggest retailer failed to profitably fulfill and ship apparel when it first began testing the category online in the late Nineties, leading to its decision to exit in April 2001. But Wal-Mart now sees huge potential. Its stores serve 138 million customers a week, and the company estimates two-thirds of them are online with a broadband connection.

“Apparel has been a top search ever since we exited the category,” said Jennifer Gosselin, senior director of merchandising for walmart.com, based in Brisbane, Calif. “As well, online apparel sales have been growing quite rapidly, outpacing e-commerce growth in general.”

Gosselin called the current assortment of several hundred styles — spanning the retailer’s top women’s, men’s, girl’s and boy’s brands — “phase one” and said it will grow throughout fall. Maternity will be added within two weeks.

“By holiday, we will have an ‘above and beyond’ assortment, which will include items not offered in the stores,” she said. The “above and beyond” concept might translate to items such as cashmere sweaters.

“One of our roles at walmart.com is prospecting for the rest of the company to see what could sell in the stores,” Gosselin said. “We get a read across broad geographic areas without having to take up space in the stores.”

Walmart.com’s move into apparel means yet another arena in which to compete head-to-head with Target. Tuesday, while Wal-Mart had its Yahoo ad, Target had its cherry-red bull’s-eye planted on MSN.com’s home page.

Mass market jeans label Levi Strauss Signature is one brand that may be caught in the crossfire. Target.com sells only men’s Signature, while walmart.com offers just the brand’s women’s, junior and girl’s products. A Levi Strauss spokeswoman said the situation wasn’t prearranged but was “the way the buys worked out at this particular time.”

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