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Wal-Mart Reconsidering Apparel on Web for Fall

Wal-Mart hasn’t sold as much as a T-shirt on its Web site for three years, but it may soon relist apparel on Walmart.com, industry executives said.

BOSTON — Wal-Mart hasn’t sold as much as a T-shirt on its Web site for three years, but that could be about to change.

The world’s biggest retailer may soon relist apparel on Walmart.com, suppliers and industry executives said. Speculation centers on a small-scale launch, possibly focused just on the company’s George brand, for back-to-school. Walmart.com staffers in recent months have attended apparel merchandising meetings to familiarize themselves with fall goods.

“This is a matter of flicking the switch for Wal-Mart,” said Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPDFashionworld, a consulting company in Port Washington, N.Y., describing the ease with which the retailer could bring apparel back. “They are very serious about doing this.”

About $8 billion worth of apparel was sold online in the U.S. in 2003, according to research firm ComScore Media Metrix. With Walmart.com capturing 8 to 10 percent of the entire Internet audience each month, the company has the clout to make an impact in apparel. Neither of Wal-Mart’s direct competitors — Kmart and Target — offer a broad selection of apparel online. Target.com consistently sells Isaac Mizrahi and a selection of its flagship designer brands, but the assortment can be an odd mix of styles and seasons. Currently, for example, the site is offering sandals alongside a Mossimo fur-trimmed parka.

Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., already sells about $20 billion worth of apparel annually through its 5,086 stores, according to industry estimates. On its Web site, Wal-Mart sells a pricier range of goods, such as diamonds, premium electronics, furniture and gifts. It also offers convenience services such as photo uplinking, music downloads, DVD rentals and flower delivery. It carries 600,000 sku’s, compared with 120,000 sku’s for the average supercenter.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman was noncommittal when asked about apparel on the Internet. “We continue to explore the option of apparel on our site, but have not made any official announcements,” she said in an e-mailed statement.

Although Wal-Mart does not disclose financials for its Web operations, chief executive officer and president Lee Scott disclosed at an analyst meeting after the June shareholders meeting that the division was not yet profitable.

Most analysts believe online sales are less than 5 percent of the $245 billion total corporate volume. If the site represents just 1 percent of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s domestic sales, it would be a $1.7 billion entity and among cyberspace’s biggest e-tailers.

The Web site has also become an important way for Wal-Mart to convey its price-value story to urban markets and other communities where it has no stores.

Vendors and industry experts speculated Walmart.com is planning a gradual return to apparel, a high-margin and high-profile category the retailer has worked on improving for three years.

By starting with a limited selection, Walmart.com would be able to avoid the shipping and fulfillment snarls that plagued the company in the late Nineties when it tried to sell everything from baby socks to ballpoint pens. Those logistical difficulties prompted Wal-Mart to yank apparel off its Web site altogether in 2001.

Last August, Wal-Mart dabbled in a joint marketing venture with Glamour magazine, which featured a limited selection of Wal-Mart private label goods on Glamour.com while Wal-Mart’s ad campaign ran in the print edition. None of the goods could be ordered off Glamour.com and the partnership wasn’t continued.

Wal-Mart.com now has the resources to tackle apparel. About 350 people work at the company’s Brisbane, Calif., Web operations under ceo John Fleming, a former Target Corp. executive. There is also a network of e-commerce warehouses, space set aside in traditional store distribution centers and a variety of direct-ship arrangements where vendors deliver everything from leather love seats to DVD rentals to the customer’s doorstep.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when Wal-Mart will move forward. Apparel vendors contacted by WWD had not received purchase orders directly from Walmart.com merchants, nor had any new packaging protocols been posted on the company’s proprietary database RetailLink. Along with being a sales-and-inventory tracking system, Wal-Mart uses RetailLink to convey news to its large vendor base.

“If we were to start shipping for the Web, we’d have to switch to bin boxes that cataloguers use,” said Sandra Rodriguez, manager of corporate administration for Pacific Continental Apparel Inc. The Los Angeles-based manufacturer sold $37 million worth of goods to Wal-Mart last year under Basic Edition and other labels.

Since the company is already polybagging individual garments, it would only take a week to switch to bin-box shipping, Rodriguez said.

Industry experts nominated George as the “brand most likely to return to Walmart.com first.”

The casual-careerwear label, created by Wal-Mart’s U.K. subsidiary ASDA, has a slightly higher price point and a more sophisticated fashion sensibility than the rest of Wal-Mart’s offering. That might work well for the Web given that Walmart.com’s average customer is better educated and more affluent than its store customer, according to the retailer’s data.

The Web gives Wal-Mart “the ability to tell a story about George, which they need to do to better leverage that brand,” NPDFashionworld’s Cohen said.