The race for the consumer’s whole paycheck sped up this week, and Amazon and Walmart were eagerly rolling out acquisitions, upgrades and the odd bits of shade-throwing as the week went on.
Robotics and automation were areas of focus for both retailers this week as they seek to upgrade their operations in an effort to capture more consumer spend. Amazon is advancing warehouse automation tech with a big leveling up of its autonomous cart technology. Walmart’s bots are store-bound and set to do more of the grunt work so that sales associates can be selling.
For Walmart those bots roll into a larger heading of store improvement efforts, while Amazon’s efforts this week were all about broadening its appeal to capture the spend of even more shoppers.
Big Play of The Week: Amazon Go Isn’t Cashless Anymore
Though Amazon Go was initially advertised to the world as a cash-free, cashierless convenience store where payments are powered entirely by mobile, reports this week indicated that cash may have a home in its Go stores after all.
Reports came Wednesday (April 10) that “additional payment mechanisms” are coming to Go stores — and cash, it seems, will be among them.
“We’re in earlier days, but it’s an important focus for us, and we’ll continue to extend those methods with our stores,” Steve Kessel, senior vice president in charge of physical store operations for Amazon, noted in a meeting last month, CNBC reported. Among other payment methods added across Amazon was a pilot that accepts government benefits tied to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
In terms of mechanics at Amazon Go, reports indicate customers will check out, pay with cash and get their change through a machine-mediated process, but no formal timeline or mechanism has been presented yet for cash acceptance at the Go stores.
Grabbing Grocery Real Estate: Whole Foods Delivery Keeps Expanding
Whole Foods Prime grocery delivery is expanding, again. As of this week, Amazon announced that its free two-hour delivery for Prime members is now available in nine additional U.S. cities: Asheville, Charlottesville, Columbia, Lexington, Little Rock, Manchester, Mobile, Naples and Savannah. With the additions, Prime delivery is now online in 75 U.S. metros with more set to be added by Amazon by year’s end.
The eCommerce company further announced it has expanded its grocery pickup to Whole Foods Market to Columbus, Ohio — bringing the total number of pickup markets to 30.
“Prime Now delivery and pickup continues to be a hit with our customers, and we’re excited to introduce the service to even more Prime members across the country,” said Christina Minardi, Whole Foods Market executive vice president of operations, in the press release. “It’s just another way we’re making it even easier for more customers to enjoy Whole Foods Market’s healthy and organic food.”
Carts Go Driverless: The Acquisition of Canvas Technology
Amazon’s efforts in robotics upgraded this week with the acquisition of Colorado-based Canvas Technology. Founded in 2015, the warehouse robotics firm is best known for developing a fully autonomous cart system, according to reports.
The Canvas Autonomous Cart is designed to maneuver in a tight, crowded and constantly shifting environment, such as a fulfillment center or warehouse. It achieves that goal via a combination of 3D imagine technology and tapping into internal software, particularly mapping systems. According to those who have seen it in action, it does an impressive job avoiding human beings and obstacles even when navigating around a crowded space.
“We are inspired by Canvas Technology’s innovations, and share a common vision for a future where people work alongside robotics to further improve safety and the workplace experience,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “We look forward to working with Canvas Technology’s fantastic team to keep inventing for customers.”
The Drama Pt. 1: Embracing Failure — and Encouraging Fair Payment Practices
CEO Jeff Bezos had a lot to say in his annual letter to Amazon shareholders this year.
As good as things look right now, he noted, “failed experiments” will happen.
“If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle,” Bezos wrote in the letter. “Amazon will be experimenting at the right scale for a company of our size if we occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures. Of course, we won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly. We will work hard to make them good bets, but not all good bets will ultimately pay out.”
He also expounded on the value of Amazon’s third-party seller marketplace — and its powerful growth over the last 20 years.
But the portion of the letter that really got everyone’s attention was his challenge in closing for other retailers — left unnamed — to match Amazon’s employee benefits and its minimum wage of $15 an hour.
“Today I challenge our top retail competitors (you know who you are!) to match our employee benefits and our $15 minimum wage. Do it! Better yet, go to $16 and throw the gauntlet back at us. It’s a kind of competition that will benefit everyone,” wrote the executive.
Well that gauntlet did get thrown back at Amazon. Probably not quite how it expected, though …
Big Play of The Week: The Robots Are Coming!
Can interacting with robots make Walmart workers happy? Walmart is betting the answer to that question is yes, as it announced this week that it is adding thousands of robots to its workforce, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week.
Soon 1,500 autonomous floor-cleaning robots will join the team, along with 300 shelf-scanning robots to check inventory, 1,200 delivery-sorting robots to collaborate with the shelf-scanning robots and 900 automated “pickup towers” for online orders.
According to Walmart, this is good news for both workers and customers.
“[Walmart employees] immediately understood the opportunity for the new technology to free them up from focusing on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual,” John Crecelius, senior vice president for central operations in the U.S., told Adweek. He said employees were happy to have their time freed to do the thing they are actually there to do — “selling merchandise and serving customers, which they [say has] always been the most exciting parts of working in retail.”
Walmart started testing two years ago and added a small number of robots to some stores in 2018. It comes from the Pittsburgh-based startup Bossa Nova Robotics, and its Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer Sarjoun Skaff is adamant that the tech is not there to replace human workers, just remove the task they don’t want to do.
“Our robot doesn’t have arms right now, so it’s not replacing the manual labor of restocking a shelf. It’s displacing the tedious task of looking for problems, which is really mind-numbing,” he told TechCrunch.
Upgrades Update: The Physical Store Upgrades to Compete in the eCommerce Era
Walmart announced plans this week to revamp 500 of its U.S. brick-and-mortar locations to include wider aisles, self-checkouts and brighter lighting. All in, Walmart plans to spend $173 upgrading in Florida, $265 million in Texas and $145 million in California. Those remodels will add on to the roughly $2.2 billion on 500 remodels in 2018 — more than a fifth of the retailer’s total capital expenditure of $10.3 billion during that time period. In 2019 Walmart plans to employ $11 billion in capital expenditures.
Walmart’s announcement follows announced plans to redesign its clothing departments to make it easier to navigate, more open and with a wider selection of goods for women, children and men. Walmart has also expanded its private-label brand offerings in apparel, with Terra & Sky, Wonder Nation and Time and Tru, among others.
Walmart’s capital expenditure are apace with others in the space, notably brick-and-mortar rival Target.
“All retailers are under pressure to do it, although whether and how much they’re doing it is very variable. Walmart is not doing massive refurbishments with major changes. It really is a refresh, to make the store experience a lot more pleasant,” GlobalData Retail Managing Director Neil Saunders said.
Advertising Acquisition: Polymorph Labs Purchased
Amazon has gotten a lot of attention of late for its expanding advertising business, and it looks like Walmart is formally trying to get in on the act. Walmart announced on its site this week that it has bought the advertising technology company Polymorph Labs to help it better compete via online digital ads, targeted using shopper data.
“We have a tiny ad business,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillon told investors last October, according to a report by Bloomberg. “It could be bigger.”
Polymorph’s technology is designed to help deliver more relevant advertising content to customers, and will reportedly help advertisers better target shopper segments based on shopping behavior.
The purchase comes a few months after Walmart moved its ad sales in house as part of a concerted effort to build it out.
The acquisition also comes as Amazon has been rapidly growing its ad revenues by allowing merchants to pay for better placement in search ads. Amazon’s ad revenue totaled $3.3 billion for 2017, up from an earlier estimate of $1.9 billion. And Amazon was on track to increase its ad revenues to $15 billion by 2020.
Walmart, on the other hand, has room to grow. As part of that effort, Walmart will be hosting the “Fifty-Two Sixty,” event next month as an opportunity for CMOs, agency folks and senior brand marketers to meet with Walmart execs and talk about how brands should be thinking about their retail strategies.
The Drama Pt. 2: People in Glass Houses Should Pay Taxes
Amazon threw down the gauntlet, encouraging retailers to start paying better. It didn’t say Walmart’s name — but we guess the “you know who you are,” spoke to Walmart.
As we noted, Walmart picked up the gauntlet in a way Amazon was likely not expecting.
Walmart Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs Dan Bartlett decided his response would be to share an article from Yahoo Finance on the $0 in federal taxes Amazon paid last year — with a challenge of his own Twitter.
“Hey retail competitors out there (you know who you are) how about paying your taxes?”
Amazon responded — somewhat less lightly.
“Amazon pays all the taxes we are required to pay in the U.S. and every country where we operate, including paying $2.6 billion in corporate tax and reporting $3.4 billion in tax expense over the last three years,” Amazon said. “Corporate tax is based on profits, not revenues, and our profits remain modest given retail is a highly competitive, low-margin business and our continued heavy investment.”