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Analyst: Wal-Mart looking to sell Macs

An analyst says the Wal-Mart electronics makeover could be a move to persuade Apple to sell Macs through the retailer.

Is Wal-Mart flirting with Apple? That's what one analyst believes is behind the retailer's newly beefed-up electronics section that's being rolled out over the next few weeks.

The world's largest retailer by revenue is doing a splashy makeover of its tech section, but there are many reasons behind the move: By building up its high-definition TV and Blu-ray home theater offerings, Wal-Mart is looking to pick up where the now-defunct Circuit City stores left off. There are also a couple of new smart phones debuting soon, including the much-anticipated Palm Pre, which Palm said Tuesday would be available at Wal-Mart in addition to Best Buy, Radio Shack, and Sprint stores.

Apple MacBook
Could Wal-Mart soon be selling MacBooks? James Martin/CNET

But Ben Reitzes, an analyst with Barclays Capital, sees Wal-Mart's makeover as part of an elaborate flirtation with Apple that would result in the retailer being allowed to sell Mac hardware, which AppleInsider noted Tuesday.

"We believe Wal-Mart is actively pitching Apple to carry more products," he wrote. "With Wal-Mart improving its retail displays, we believe that the mega-retailer could eventually earn the right to sell select Mac products without diluting Apple's brand."

There are several reasons why this could be possible. First, the two are already friendly--iPods and iPhones can be found on Wal-Mart shelves. And Apple does allow Macs to be sold by third-party retailers, which right now includes Best Buy. Apple has employed the "store-within-a-store" concept at Best Buy, where Apple-trained salespeople help customers looking at Apple products on cookie-cutter Apple product displays (minimalist light-grain wood tables, surrounded by Apple signage). There's no reason this can't be replicated within the walls of Wal-Mart, which could be a good option should Apple and Best Buy some day choose to part ways again.

Plus, while there are 10,000 places to buy a Mac at retail right now, only about 225 of those are official Apple Stores. And, as Reitzes points out, Wal-Marts are located in places without an Apple Store for miles--sometimes not even in the same state. Putting Macs in Wal-Mart would definitely get Macs in front of more prospective buyers.

But then again, does Apple really need to do that? Apple's market share in North America stands at about 7.5 percent, and there's arguably not a lot of opportunity to increase that in any significant way. And while Mac sales are dropping, traditional computer hardware is not the focus of Apple's business going forward. The iPhone is going to be the focus, and the reason that is available in Wal-Mart is because there IS still a huge opportunity to grab share in the smartphone market.

There are also plenty of other arguments against it, mostly having to do with Apple's carefully crafted image of the Mac as an aspirational brand and Wal-Mart's success as the purveyor of discount commodities. Apple cedes some control over marketing when it puts products in the hands of the world's largest retailer, and then there's the issue of price: Apple might have to be more flexible on the price of the Mac, something it's been almost entirely unwilling to do (though there have been recent rumors that price cuts are in the offing). But even with the economy the way it is, and Mac sales slumping, both are going to come back eventually.

So while adding the store-within-a-store setup inside Wal-Mart is a good move for the iPod/iPhone sales, overall it seems unlikely that these displays will include Macs in the near term.