site goes back online after 28-day overhaul

With less than two months to go before Christmas, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s e-commerce affiliate reopened its Web site Tuesday after a 28-day closure during which the site was given a complete makeover.

Menlo Park, Calif.-based Inc., which is jointly owned by Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart and Palo Alto, Calif.-based venture-capital firm Accel Partners, closed its Web site on Oct. 3 for a redesign. The makeover included a switch to a new e-commerce application platform that the company bought in July from defunct online retailer officials couldn’t be reached for comment on the relaunch Tuesday, and supervisors at the company’s call centre declined to discuss the move. The company initially had hoped to reopen the Web site as early as Oct. 17, although a spokeswoman later said its official goal was to be back in business by the end of this month.

Some analysts had criticized the decision to shut down and redesign the site at this point in the year, with one going so far as to call it “insane” to make such major changes just before the start of the holiday shopping season.

Barrett Ladd, an analyst at Gomez Advisors Inc. in Lincoln, Mass., said she still questions’s complete shutdown of the Web site during the renovation process. But she noted that the changes unveiled today have greatly improved the site’s appearance and usability. “I think they’ve done a good job of putting together a pretty clean site,” she said.

Among the highlights is the use of file folder “tabs” to differentiate product categories in order to make it easier for users to find different products, Ladd said. The addition of clearer information on pricing, warranty details, the country of origin for products and whether the merchandise can be gift-wrapped is also “a notable improvement” compared to earlier versions of the Web site, she added.

Jim Williamson, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., also reiterated his belief that the shutdown of the Web site was “nuts.” But, he said, apparently sees this holiday season as a “learning experience” for the company.

“I’m not sure they’re looking to make a lot of profits online this holiday [season],” Williamson said, adding that it looks more like company officials “are just looking to kind of stretch their legs a little bit.”

In a related matter, office products retailer Office Depot Inc. in Delray Beach, Fla., today also announced that it has launched a redesigned version of its Web site. Included was the addition of a series of professional services and information resources aimed at small-business users.