MILWAUKEE – The world's largest retailer wants to keep its customers even after they die.
Wal-Mart has started selling caskets on its Web site at prices that undercut many funeral homes, long the major seller of caskets.
The move follows a similar one by discount rival Costco, which also sells caskets on its site.
Wal-Mart quietly put up about 15 caskets and dozens of urns on its Web site last week.
Prices range from $999 for models like "Dad Remembered" and "Mom Remembered" steel caskets to the mid-level $1,699 "Executive Privilege." All are less than $2,000, except for the Sienna Bronze Casket, which sells for $3,199.
Caskets ship within 48 hours. Federal law requires funeral homes to accept third-party caskets. Returns are not accepted, the company says on its site, unless the product has been damaged during shipping.
The caskets come from Star Legacy Funeral Network, Inc., a company based in McHenry, Illinois, that sells the same caskets for about the same price — some less — on its site, along with many others.
Star Legacy CEO Rick Obadiah said the response in the first week has been better than the company or Wal-Mart expected, though he declined to give specifics. A spokesman for Walmart.com also declined to release sales figures and downplayed the venture.
"Several online retailers offer this category on their sites," spokesman Ravi Jariwala wrote in an e-mail. "We are simply conducting a limited beta test to understand customer response."
But Obadiah said it is not simply a test. He said more than 200 Star Legacy products, including pet urns and memorial jewelry, and eventually about two dozen caskets, will be sold at walmart.com. The company also supplies similar types of products to online retailer Overstock.com and urns to CostCo's Web site.
Other parts of the Wal-Mart empire also sell funeral wares. The company's samsclub.com site sells casket floral arrangements for about $300.
Part of the business model is to get people to plan ahead: Walmart.com is allowing people to pay for the caskets over a period of 12 months for no interest.
The move gives more power to consumers and helps them avoid high mark-ups on caskets, which can often be several hundred percent, said R. Brian Burkhardt, a funeral director who blogs as "Your Funeral Guy."
"You can get a quality casket for $1,000 rather than pay $2,000, $3,000 or $5,000 in a funeral home. That's where it helps the consumer," he said.
The industry is not too concerned about Wal-Mart entering the market, said Pat Lynch, president-elect of the National Funeral Home Directors Association. Consumers have been able to buy caskets online and from other sources for years, with minimal effect on the business, he said.
Wal-Mart's prices for caskets don't differ greatly from those offered at funeral homes, most of which range from $500 to $5,000, Lynch said. He declined to give an average price, saying a casket selection is a personal one.
He said Wal-Mart can't offer one thing funeral directors do have: the ability to comfort someone during a trying time.
"There's no question in my mind as a funeral director for nearly 40 years that the most critical element is the human contact," he said.