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Now that they have pushed online sales for several years, retailers are trying to figure out how to use online sales to spur in-store sales.

Wal-Mart, the latest in this march, announced last week that it would expand an old program with a new one called "Pick Up Today," which allows customers to submit orders online and pick up their items a few hours later in their local store. The move is not revolutionary — Sears and Nordstrom, for instance, have similar programs. But Wal-Mart, as the world's biggest retailer, tends to set the bar that all competitors must then hurdle, whether that involves sustainability or free shipping.

As competition grows from and other online retailers, Wal-Mart is battling back in a bid to win consumers who have gone elsewhere for convenience. It previously offered the service on about 2,000 items in less than a quarter of its stores. Now it will apply 40,000 items (by the fourth quarter), including baby items, toys, electronics, video games and appliances in an initiative expected to reach nationwide (3,600 stores) by June. Groceries are not part of the program, for now.

Retailers say tying online and in-store inventory together lets them sell more products to more customers. Nordstrom recently combined its inventory so that if the online stockroom is out of a jacket, a store that has it can ship it to the Web customer. Encouraging customers to retrieve items they have ordered online in a store increases visits to the stores, which usually increases sales. Best Buy offers store pickup and "ship to store," where items are shipped free to a local store. Ace Hardware, JC Penney and Wal-Mart are among the others offering "ship to store" programs.

At Walmart stores, customers will receive a text message or e-mail alerting them when their orders are ready.

"Not only do we see it as a nice convenience for customers, but we also see it as a way to drive incremental traffic to the stores, and incremental sales," said Steve Nave, senior vice president and general manager of

Wal-Mart has been testing the program since October in about 750 stores, and Nave said that both traffic and sales in those stores got a "meaningful" lift. Wal-Mart has been trying to get more people in its U.S. stores because traffic declined in 2010, and sales at stores open at least a year have been declining for seven quarters.

Wal-Mart also announced that it was shortening the time customers would have to wait for ship-to-store items, to four to seven days, from seven to 10 days.

Shoppers are increasingly turning online to buy goods. Total U.S. e-commerce spending, excluding travel, rose 10 percent, to $142.5 billion, in 2010, according to research firm comScore. That outpaces total retail spending, which rose 3.7 percent, to $2.37 trillion, according to the National Retail Federation.

At the same time, competition is growing from dollar stores for Wal-Mart's central business of groceries, laundry soap and other "consumables." Customers have turned to the smaller stores because they are favoring quicker trips to buy necessities such as milk and diapers. is even muscling into that business, pitching its customers on the idea of "subscribing" to regular shipments of household necessities in exchange for a discount.

Although Wal-Mart benefited during the recession as shoppers hunted for bargains, it has missed out on the consumer spending comeback. Customer counts have declined.

Wal-Mart reported a 1.8 percent decline in revenue at U.S. discount stores open at least a year in its most recent quarter, its seventh straight quarterly drop. That important measurement of a retailer's health excludes stores that open or close during the year.

Wal-Mart does not break out online sales but says its online growth rate outpaces the total e-commerce growth rate by two to three times. is by far the busiest e-commerce site, with more than double the monthly visitors of in 2010, according to Comscore. is third-busiest behind Apple.

Wal-Mart is also expanding its five-year-old "site-to-store" program, which lets customers order products Wal-Mart doesn't sell in stores and have them shipped to a nearby store or, in some cases, a FedEx location. That process used to take seven to 10 days, but the company has sped up the process to four to seven days.

Finally, Wal-Mart will now let consumers refill prescriptions and order photos via its mobile website.