US supermarket giant Wal-Mart, already No. 1 in the world thanks to its global operations, is reported to be planning further expansion in Europe and entry into Italy - and may do so even through strategic partnership with established outlets.

"We are a group with strong global vocation," Wal-Mart Chairman and CEO John Menzer is quoted as announcing in Italy's main business daily newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore yesterday [24 June]. "Europe is strategic in our development plans."

Pete Netzel, company Vice President for International Food Merchandising, is reported as saying that Wal-Mart is in the process of evaluating opportunities in Italy, adding that the company is open to the idea of partnership without full control.

Possible entry by Wal-Mart into the Italian supermarket business is bound to cause an upheaval in a sector in which foreign companies are already prominent and hold 50% share of the market, principally through Auchan and Carrefour. The Italian business daily, reporting from a meeting in Prague, said a new round of price wars is likely if Wal-Mart enters the sector.

Il Sole 24 Ore said senior Wal-Mart officials declined to name specific targets or potential partners.

Wal-Mart, offering steep discounts and its overall sales reaching US$200bn, is said to have doubled its turnover in the past five years due to its international operations.

By Hilmi Toros, correspondent