Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s tie-up with Google to enter the voice-enabled shopping race generally won plaudits on Wednesday — with some caveats.
As reported, Wal-Mart is partnering with Google to offer in September hundreds of thousands of products through Google Home’s Google Assistant. But while Wal-Mart has been aggressively asserting its omnichannel prowess to compete with Amazon, the Google hookup doesn’t approach the reach of Amazon’s Alexa-enabled device users, which reportedly number 12 million to 20 million, compared with Google Home’s 6 million to 10 million.
Keith Anderson, senior vice president, strategy and insight at Profitero, said that linking up with Wal-Mart won’t necessarily drive more adoption for Google Home. “You can use Alexa with any smartphone that has the Amazon app installed. Voice-commerce from Google is limited to owners of the Google Home speaker. It would be better if Google voice search extended to desktop computers and smartphones.”
Wal-Mart’s move was nonetheless applauded. “Wal-Mart is once again making sure it participates in an inevitable innovation,” said Carol Spieckerman, president of Spieckerman Retail. “Wal-Mart would [inevitably] participate in the voice shopping space. They don’t have a choice if they want to be relevant in the future. There’s still a lot of bugs to work out. They’re not waiting until everything is perfect, they’re making sure they’re earlier adopters.”
There are some unanswered questions, such as whether the partnership will extend to Jet.com, which Wal-Mart acquired a year ago for $3.3 billion. “This may be a first step,” Anderson said. “There’s a lot of things they can do to build on this starting point that would support the objective of putting Google and Wal-Mart on [more] even footing with Amazon.”
“I imagine Jet has to be in future plans if it’s not from the start,” Spieckerman said. “Wal-Mart’s pumping up the volume for Jet. It will be interesting to see whether Wal-Mart shoppers adopt the device or whether Google customers turn an eye to Wal-Mart. Anytime Wal-Mart participates, it changes the game for everyone else. Wal-Mart is creating millions of early adopters.”
Marc Lore, president and chief executive officer of Wal-Mart U.S. e-commerce, said the retailer’s assortment will be the largest number offered by any of the platform’s participants, which include Costco, Target and Bed Bath & Beyond.
Wal-Mart will give customers the ability to build a basket of previously purchased everyday essentials. Lore said Wal-Mart decided to “deeply integrate our Easy Reorder feature into Google Express, which will enable us to deliver highly personalized shopping recommendations based on customers’ previous purchases, including those made in Wal-Mart stores and on walmart.com.”
To take advantage of the personalization, customers link their Wal-Mart account to Google Express.
“From Wal-Mart’s vantage point, the relationship appears to be a win-win and builds upon many of its recent digital ecosystem initiatives,” said Gordon Haskett analyst Charles Grom, citing digital native acquisitions such as shoes.com, Moosejaw, ModCloth, Bonobos and speculation about Birchbox; the walmart.com marketplace with 67 million total stockkeeping units, and the buy-online-pick-up-in-store discount.
“This is just the beginning,” Lore said. “Next year, we’ll leverage our 4,700 U.S. stores and our fulfillment network to create customer experiences that don’t exist within voice shopping, including choosing to pick up an order in store — often for a discount — or using voice shopping to purchase fresh groceries.”
Voice commerce along with Wal-Mart’s core value proposition, which includes free two-day shipping “will give our customers a compelling new way to get what they need at low prices,” said Lore, adding, “We know this means being compared side-by-side with other retailers, and we think that’s the way it should be. An open and transparent shopping universe is good for customers.”
While Wal-Mart has historically wanted to own capabilities it considers strategic, it opted to use Google’s technology, at least for now. Lore cited Google’s significant investments in natural language processing and artificial intelligence.
“There are some big trade-offs,” Anderson said. “As time goes on, Wal-Mart in addition to the Google service, could try to offer its own voice service embedded in its web site and app.
“This [deal] reflects how quickly voice is becoming an experience differentiator for Amazon,” Anderson said, adding that any retailer that doesn’t have voice as a strategy or priority is missing the boat. “Voice has so much future potential and the evidence is already pretty solid. We’re quickly seeing its adoption.”
Google made its own announcement of the Wal-Mart initiative, and added the news that as of Wednesday it’s offering free delivery on Google Express as long as the order is above each store’s minimum. “There’s no membership required. Whether you shop through voice with your Google Assistant or on the web site or mobile app, you’ll get free delivery within one to three days,” said Sridhar Ramaswamy, senior vice president of ads and commerce at Google.