back on-line after four-week overhaul

With less than two months before Christmas, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s e-commerce affiliate reopened its Web site 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 Oct. 3 for a redesign. The makeover included a switch to a new e-commerce application that the company bought in July from defunct retailer spokesperson Cynthia Lynn confirmed that the Web site went live again Oct. 31, without any great fanfare. She said the redesign was aimed at making the site “cleaner [and] clearer” for users, with new features such as the ability to search for specific items by price, alphabetical order or popularity. had hoped to reopen the Web site as early as Oct. 17, although the company later said its official goal was to be back in business by the end of last month.

Some analysts had criticized the decision to shut down and redesign the site at this time of 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 renovations. But she noted that the changes have greatly improved the site’s usability. “I think they’ve done a good job of putting together a pretty clean site,” she said.

But Michael Szego, a consultant at J.C. Williams Group Ltd. in Toronto, said that while the new site “is an attempt at cleanliness, it almost goes too far” with its heavy use of text. Szego added that reducing the number of clicks to get to products might help. “I’m still left with too many decisions on one page,” he said.

Jim Williamson, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., said he doesn’t think that Wal-Mart is “taking advantage of the way they can influence the way people purchase by presenting products in an interesting way. Pictures aren’t always there, they’re not always of good quality, navigation is not great, and the visual layout is not impressive.”

Williamson also said that he didn’t understand Wal-Mart’s decision to shut down the site. “Plenty of companies have concurrently developed new sites while running older ones,” he said, adding that Wal-Mart may have “consciously or not” raised expectations by shutting down the site.

“To wait all that time to get a site that’s subpar really calls into question their strategy,” Williamson said.

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