By Jessica Wohl
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc <WMT.N> is expanding a program that lets shoppers pick out items online and pick them up in its stores across the United States as it tries to bring people to its stores more often following several quarters of disappointing sales.
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The program, called Pick Up Today, has been tested since October in about 750 stores and is currently in 20 markets including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Miami and Phoenix. It will expand further into the Southwest and should be in all of the company's nearly 3,600 U.S. stores by June.
The expansion of the free service comes weeks after Wal-Mart posted its seventh consecutive quarterly decline in sales at stores open at least a year. Lower-income U.S. shoppers are holding back from spending and now visit dollar stores more often for basic goods such as food, especially as soaring gas prices crimp budgets.
Food, the single biggest category in Wal-Mart's stores, is not included in the Pick Up Today program.
"We're looking at some other things with grocery right now" and did not want to confuse customers, said Steve Nave, senior vice president and general manager of Walmart.com.
The company already sells dry groceries, such as cereal, online for home delivery.
One issue traditional retailers have had with online shopping is that when people shop via a computer they may be less likely to buy impulse items. Wal-Mart has seen shoppers using the service in test markets continue to browse its stores and buy more when they come in to pick up their orders.
"They're actually spending time looking at other categories and making both planned purchases but also unplanned purchases," Nave said. "We see it as a good opportunity to increase the size of the basket as well as to just drive incremental traffic into our stores."
When it began, Pick Up Today was limited to items such as electronics and small appliances. Now, 18 categories will be included such as bedding, jewelry, toys and furniture.
Apparel and some other common goods are also missing from the 40,000 items available in the program, at least for now.
Wal-Mart also trimmed the delivery time for Site to Store, a program in its fifth year that lets shoppers buy items online and have them shipped to a store for free. Delivery is now four to seven days, down from seven to 10 days.
Customers using web-enabled phones are also now able to order photos from their phones that will be ready in the store and can refill prescriptions, Wal-Mart said.
(Reporting by Jessica Wohl, editing by Dave Zimmerman)