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Wal-Mart tests cheaper Web music service

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. began testing its new 88-cent-per-song online music service Thursday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. began a test Thursday of its new 88 cent-per-song online music service, trying to capture more of the music market at a price that undercuts the 99 cent standard of its competition.

The site has "hundreds of thousands" of songs, available in Windows Media Audio format, which can be transferred to compatible portable devices, burned to a CD or played on Windows-compatible PCs, Wal-Mart said.

"The test phase for this new service is important to gauge customer feedback, so that we can deliver a quality music downloads service that customers will want to use time and time again," said senior category manager Kevin Swint.

The company plans to see what customers like and don't like about the service in the months ahead and formally launch it in spring 2004.

Executives at the world's largest retailer are fond of saying that 20 percent of their customers don't have checking accounts. But Swint said 64 percent of Wal-Mart customers are online.

"We see digital music downloads as a natural extension of the music selection offered in Wal-Mart stores," Swint said. spokeswoman Cynthia Lin would not say what the company's profit expectations are for the service. Wal-Mart is known for doing everything it can to keep costs down. Lin said the company employed that method in developing the music site but would not say whether it negotiated lower rates for what it pays for songs on the site.

Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes offers songs for 99 cents apiece. Roxio Inc. and Napster are players in the sector, and Microsoft Corp. is to crowd the field next year when it introduces its own song-downloading service.

Lin also said the site will abide by the same content format as found on CD racks in Wal-Mart stores, which don't sell music with content the company deems offensive. On the Web site, the company notes that some songs are flagged as "edited" to denote a song was recorded without offensive lyrics.

On Thursday morning, the music site featured the club mix of OutKast's "Hey Ya!" as its top download. Its No. 9 entry was "First Cut is the Deepest" by Sheryl Crow.

In 1996, Wal-Mart refused to stock a CD by Crow that contained lyrics criticizing Wal-Mart for selling guns. Her greatest hits CD is featured on the site with a greatest hits CD by country performer Alan Jackson under the heading "All the Best." The Crow CD doesn't feature the offending song, "Love is a Good Thing."

Wal-Mart said it developed its online service with Anderson Merchandisers and the songs will be provided by Liquid Digital Media, previously known as Liquid Audio, which was acquired by Anderson Merchandisers in January.