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Wal-Mart opens doors to new online store

The retail giant launches a new online store, marking its boldest foray into e-commerce and posing a greater threat to Internet giants such as Amazon.com.

Wal-Mart today launched a new online store, marking its boldest foray into e-commerce and posing a greater threat to Internet giants such as Amazon.com.

Wal-Mart's new e-commerce site shows 24 categories, including appliances, a garden shop, pets, toys and travel. It lists many of the same categories that Amazon launched last year in its bid to expand beyond "Earth's biggest bookstore."

Wal-Mart's site also includes a personalization service dubbed "My Wal-Mart" that promises quicker checkout and keeps track of a customer's purchase history. The online store also includes features such as an automated gift and toy finder to help in buying items.

The travel site lets users book flights, hotel rooms and rental cars. A "photo center" lets customers post photos online to share them with frends.

The site--launched on New Year's day, as expected--is another sign of the move toward the Web by brick-and-mortar retailing giants. Many traditional retailers have stumbled on the Internet, however; Wal-Mart's own site had been expected sooner.

In addition, offline retailers have sometimes been criticized for their lack of knowledge or sensitivity about doing business electronically. Online stores such as Wal-Mart's, for example, have raised concerns among privacy advocates.

The retailer promises a "private and secure" shopping experience. It adds, however, that "Wal-Mart.com may disclose aggregated user statistics (for example, 45% of our users are female) to others, but none of these statistics will contain personally identifiable information."

Wal-Mart's e-commerce expansion will be closely watched by Wall Street as well as by competitors. The retailer will compete against myriad Internet companies, such as Preview Travel, eToys and CDNow.

At the same time, Wal-Mart remains strongly committed to shopping the old-fashioned way. The front door of its Web site lets users type in their zip code to learn about the nearest Wal-Mart in their neighborhood.