March 23, 2004, 12:00 AM

Wal-Mart breaks into online music with 88-cent songs

No big surprise here: After weeks of industry speculation that Wal-Mart would enter the online music business with discounted prices, it launched today a service offering songs priced 11% under the common 99-cent price.

No big surprise here: After weeks of industry speculation that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. would enter the online music business with discounted prices, it launched today on Walmart.com a service offering songs priced at 88 cents each, 11% under the common 99-cent price offered by more established competitors.

Wal-Mart is promoting the service in its stores as well as on Walmart.com through an integrated marketing program. It’s also offering both in its stores and on its web site gift cards featuring the Music Downloads logo for making purchases on Walmart.com.

Following a test-phase of its Music Downloads service in December, Wal-Mart expanded its number of available songs and made several service improvements, including a download manager designed to make it easier to download full albums or groups of songs, enhanced search and browse capabilities for finding particular artists, and a 24/7 phone and e-mail customer support system. It also increased its number of available song tracks by 50% to more than 300,000, a spokeswoman says.

"Customer response during our test phase has been extremely positive, with strong customer demand across a variety of genres from rock, pop, and rap to R&B; and country," said Kevin Swint, Walmart.com`s director of entertainment categories.

For the next two months, music label Curb Records is making its more than 3,000 digital country music songs available exclusively on Walmart.com.

Customers can also buy single-disc albums for $9.44 (compared to $9.95 on most other digital music sites) and two-disc albums for $17.44.

Wal-Mart says that 66% of its customer base shops online, and that, of those, 66% use broadband web access -- which supports its offering digital music downloads, a spokeswoman says. "Broadband is paving the way for our customers to receive digital music," she says.

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