August 30, 2004, 12:00 AM

Apparel rides again on WalMart.com

WalMart.com is reintroducing apparel sales after a three-year absence, as it takes steps to beef up its distribution network and improve its apparel selection – two factors that helped sink its first attempt to sell clothing online.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s WalMart.com has about 700,000 SKUs online at any given time, including, since its July 20 relaunch of apparel online, a few thousand SKUs representing different colors and sizes of hundreds of items of apparel. But apparel’s share of what’s on offer on Wal-Mart’s web site is sure to grow, with the company having taken steps to beef up its distribution network and improve the apparel selection-two factors that helped sink its first attempt to sell clothing online three years ago.

In fact, WalMart.com already has expanded the assortment that it launched with in July, adding maternity clothes later that month. “The launch on July 20 was phase one of our apparel assortment,” says a spokeswoman. “We’ll continue to monitor customer response to our apparel offering and expand the assortment.”

Back to school clothing including school uniforms, boys’ and girls’ denim and backpacks are already winners online, the company says. Customers can expect to see the clothing selection expand into apparel gift items and outerwear such as jackets, coats and sweaters as the holidays approach.

The new category is doing double duty online as a purchasing channel and a research tool as Wal-Mart continues to tighten multi-channel marketing efforts. In addition to giving customers the opportunity to buy clothing on Wal-Mart’s site, putting the category online is a way to provide shopping tips and detailed product descriptions.

Wal-Mart supported the new online category with an integrated marketing campaign around its July launch. In-store promotion featured signs in the apparel departments to publicize the new availability of apparel on WalMart.com. Thirty-second spots promoting apparel on WalMart.com played on TV monitors in the stores. The availability of apparel on WalMart.com also was featured in Wal-Mart’s early August newspaper circular inserts.

Online, the apparel category got front and center promotion the week of launch on the home page. That was backed up with additional home page promotion in its so-called “box top” format, which is real estate carved out for rotating features along the page’s right-hand side. Wal-Mart’s opt-in customer list received several e-mail announcements, and they’ll receive more as seasonally relevant. After advertising the new category on major portals such as MSN and Yahoo during the launch week, WalMart.com is still gauging the online ad opportunity beyond its own web site and e-mail list. m

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