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Wal-Mart has an ear for iPod market

Mega retailer starts selling iPod Minis but won't confirm rumors that it's struck a deal to carry the new Shuffle.

Wal-Mart Stores has quietly begun selling Apple Computer's popular iPod Minis in select stores, the mega retailer's first big move into the market for the enormously popular digital music players.

The discount chain is selling Minis in a "limited number of stores," a Wal-Mart representative said Monday. The representative declined to elaborate on how many of the company's nearly 5,000 stores are carrying the device.

The Mini is one of the few Apple products the discount chain sells, but that may soon change. The companies are rumored to be working out an agreement for Wal-Mart to begin selling the iPod Shuffle, a music device Apple unveiled last month. A report on enthusiast site AppleInsider speculated that Wal-Mart may order as many 250,000 iPod Shuffles.

Neither company would comment on the report.

In any case, the addition of Wal-Mart to Apple's list of retail partners would expose many more consumers to the product and likely lift Apple's sales. Up until now, the world's largest retailer has largely stayed out of the market for Apple products, which typically forgo affordability in favor of sleek design.

"Apple's just about the only PC company that hasn't tried to sell stuff to Wal-Mart," PC Data analyst Stephen Baker said.

Analysts said the partnership is probably a smart one for both companies but noted that the two make strange bedfellows. In addition to different corporate images, the companies diverge on price strategies. Wal-Mart prefers to undercut the competition, while Apple frowns on any discounting that would undermine sales at its own high-style Apple stores. And Wal-Mart's own online music store features music downloads in a Microsoft format that competes with Apple's.

"It's kind of odd," said Toni Duboise, an analyst at Current Analysis.

Apple has worked in recent years to significantly boost the number of places where iPods are sold. In addition to traditional Mac sellers like CompUSA, Apple added places like Target and Best Buy. Perhaps the biggest move was to allow Hewlett-Packard to resell the iPod. That has added a whole other crop of iPod retailers, including Radio Shack and office chains like Staples.

Apple has also started selling gift cards for its iTunes Music Store in places like 7-Eleven and Circuit City--a former Mac retailer that has also started selling iPods., the company's separate online unit, already sells a variety of iPod accessories and the HP version of the iPod.