Wal-Mart’s online sales surge 63 percent as it races to catch up with Amazon

The unexpected leap in online sales offered the strongest evidence yet that Wal-Mart, the country’s largest retailer, is making headway in its effort to be as prominent online as it is across the U.S. landscape.

Wal-Mart has always excelled at selling products in its cavernous stores. It appears to be getting its head around selling online, too.

On Thursday, the company said e-commerce sales had grown 63 percent in the United States in the latest quarter. The unexpected leap offered the strongest evidence yet that Wal-Mart, the country’s largest retailer, is making headway in its effort to be as prominent online as it is across the U.S. landscape.

“This is extraordinary growth, and we’re pleased with the traction we’re generating across our e-commerce offerings,” said Brett Biggs, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president and chief financial officer.

Now the question is whether the company can sustain that growth to become a fiercer competitor to the online juggernaut Amazon. Wal-Mart has invested heavily in building its online business over the years, but the results have been mixed — and Amazon has surged.

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Wal-Mart’s latest strategy, put in place by its current chief executive, Doug McMillon, has several parts: expand the number of products available online, better leverage its huge physical warehouses and distribution centers to reach customers quickly across the country, and aggressively pursue deals for online stores.

The biggest of those deals, in which Wal-Mart paid $3.3 billion for the bulk e-commerce retailer Jet.com last year, was part of the plan to offer customers more products through the web.

The earnings results Thursday gave only hints of how much the acquisitions gave the company a one-time bump in sales, rather than long-lasting fruit from other changes the company has made. Overall sales rose 1.4 percent, to $117.5 billion, in the…

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