HARTFORD, Conn. — Walmart Stores Inc. has always competed with Main Street clothing and hardware stores, but this spring, the retail giant may be going head to head with specialty stores that sell handmade arts and crafts.

Walmart will begin selling one-of-a-kind handicrafts made by women artisans in developing countries on its website, Walmart.com.

It’s a surprise move for a retailer whose empire is built on offering mass-produced items at discount prices. But for a West Hartford nonprofit, Aid to Artisans Inc., whose mission is helping Third World artisans develop and sell their handicrafts to buyers in North America, Walmart’s new venture represents a major new market.

Walmart isn’t talking prices yet, but by 2016 it plans to offer up to 500 items by 20,000 women artisans in two dozen countries. Among this spring’s offerings: dresses from Kenya and jewelry from Guatemala and Thailand.

Walmart’s announcement has startled many and raised the concerns of importers and retailers who say they follow the precepts of fair trade, including Ten Thousand Villages, the nation’s oldest and largest fair trade retailer.

“It certainly does seem in sharp contrast to Walmart’s typical business model,” said Michele Loeper, a spokeswoman at the Akron, Pa., headquarters for Ten Thousand Villages.

“I’m not sure what their model will be,” Loeper said. “From our point of view we work with the artisans to identify a fair income, one that will benefit them and be sustainable. We’re the anti-Walmart, a nonprofit company dedicated to providing sustainable income opportunities to artisans in developing countries. I doubt that’s what Walmart is doing here.”

Down the road, does Ten Thousand Villages view Walmart as competition?

“That remains to be seen,” Loeper said.

Walmart said it plans to procure some products from Ethical Fashion Africa and Full Circle Exchange, a program within the International Trade Centre. The ITC is a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.

The e-commerce site is an “ideal venue” for artisans who “may not have the size or scale to sell in our brick-and-mortar stores,” and it gives them “the benefit of the company’s knowledge about customers, packaging and promotions,” said Leslie Dach, Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs.

Aid to Artisans has asked Walmart to include in its selection a group of handicrafts made by women artisans in Colombia.

“We have reached out to Walmart. We inquired and are waiting for a response,” said Alfred Espinosa, president of ATA.

ATA has helped artisans sell their products to Crate & Barrel, Coldwater Creek, Anthropologie and other retailers. And earlier this year it received a $490,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation, the company’s charitable arm. The foundation recently launched a campaign to improve the lives of women.

Nelson Lichtenstein, author of “The Retail Revolution: How Walmart Created a Brave New World of Business,” questioned Walmart’s motives.

“They’ll make some money with this, but I suspect that’s not the main point — it’s public relations to soften its image among urban liberals,” Lichtenstein said.

That segment of the consumer market embraces an agenda that includes environmental issues, microfinance and the empowerment of women, Lichtenstein said. And reaching their hearts and pocketbooks could mean inroads into some highly desirable urban markets.

“Walmart has been desperately trying to get into San Francisco, Boston and New York,” Lichtenstein said.

Handcrafted items typically appeal to a higher-income shopper, a demographic Walmart wants to attract, he said. But Lichtenstein said he wonders if Walmart, which has a reputation for “squeezing” its suppliers — demanding higher volumes and lower prices — may also end up pressuring artisans to step up production, “eroding the handmade aspect.”

Improving its corporate image may play a part, but that doesn’t diminish the Walmart Foundation’s effort to improve the economic station of women, said Aaron Dorfman, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

“A lot of this is a thoughtful reaction to the criticism of the corporation over the years,” he said. “There are legitimate criticisms of Walmart and some of its practices. But this to me seems like a positive initiative.”