Both Amazon and Walmart topped the headlines this week, albeit for very different reasons. Amazon captured the bulk of its interest by its attempt to capture more of the average’s consumers whole paycheck with something it is adding — namely a new payment method that requires little more than a consumer waving at a scanner.
Walmart, by contrast, captured the lion’s share of its headlines this week with news about a subtraction — namely some firearms and ammunition from its stores.
And, as always, the race to capture customer spend went a lot deeper than just the top-of-the-fold items — under the surface both firms are quickly and quietly forging new partnerships, expanding their offerings and testing out new field to compete on. The second half of the year has come — and as expected the new offers are rolling out fast and furious.
Big Play of the Week: Pay With the Hand
The big news out of Amazon this week were reports that the eCommerce giant is currently testing a new biometric payment method on vending machines at its New York offices that allows users to pay with their handprint.
Those vending machines, however, are only a temporary home — the goal by early 2020 is to begin rolling out the handprint scanners in Whole Foods locations nationwide so that grocery shoppers can essentially wave and go to pay. The system works by scanning a consumer’s handprint at distance (it is not a contact scan that requires the customer to lay their hand on a device) and using a combination of computer vision and depth geometry to identify them and connect to their card on file.
Early reports indicated the system is both faster and more accurate than previous iterations of biometric-based payments that have used fingerprints or vein prints. According to Amazon, paying by hand scan takes about 300 milliseconds. By comparison, paying with a card takes 4 seconds. The system’s current reported accuracy rate is one ten-thousandth of 1 percent. That is a marked improvement over the fail rates of the past, but Amazon wants to improve that to a millionth of 1 percent ahead of its launch scheduled for select locations starting in early next year.
Consumer Enhancements 1: Expanding the Options For Returns
It is not difficult to return an item to Amazon, and the company has surely invested heavily in making shipping an unwanted item back easy. And this week the latest advance rolled out, though Amazon has not made an official announcement. According to reports in Business Insider, Amazon is now accepting returns on purchases made online in its some of its Go stores in addition to its book shops where it already accepts returns. Using the Amazon app, customers can choose what they want to return, select a Go location and drop the item off. Free of charge, no packaging or boxes required. Once done, the customer receives a QR code via the app or in an email that can be scanned by a Go employee.
Go stores now join 19 Amazon Books locations and three Amazon 4-star stores as well as over 1,100 Kohl’s locations for real world returns.
Consumer Enhancements 2: Upgrading Site Navigability
And while Amazon was stealthily rolling out new offline commerce features, reports indicate it was also doing more to boost the digital shopping experience in the hopes of upping conversions. Amazon is now testing out a “New” badge for items on the site, to highlight products that are newly arrived on the site. “New” joins “Top Brand” as new badge markers is adding to goods to help draw consumer interest — they join classic favorite like “Amazon’s Choice” and “Best Seller.”
According to sellers interviewed by CNBC the testing on the “New” badge is still in its early phases and the criteria for it to be awarded or not to a particular product were described as “unclear.” The testing still seems to be fairly limited.
And that that fact was more or less confirmed by an Amazon’s spokesperson to CNBC. According to the company, the program is relatively recent and the badge is currently being tested in “select markets for certain customers.”
“We are always experimenting to provide a better shopping experience for customers,” Amazon’s spokesperson said in an email statement.
And Amazon is not the only player experimenting with improving the shopping experience for their customers this week — albeit another one was perhaps much quieter.
Which leads us to …
Big Play of the Week: A Farewell To Arms
Walmart probably managed to make the biggest splash in the retail segment this week with the announcement that it will no longer be selling certain types of ammunition to customers, and that it will discourage the open carrying of weapons in its stores. Walmart will also discontinue handgun sales in Alaska, the only state where it still sells such weapons.
The announcement comes about a month after an El Paso, Texas Walmart was the scene of a mass shooting incident that left 22 people fatally wounded. Since the incident, several incidents with customers openly carrying weapons have caused, according to Walmart CEO Doug McMillion, alarm inadvertently and in ways that ended with stores being evacuated and law enforcement being called.
“These incidents are concerning and we would like to avoid them, so we are respectfully requesting that customers no longer openly carry firearms into our stores or Sam’s Clubs in states where ‘open carry’ is permitted — unless they are authorized law enforcement officers,” McMillon said.
In addition to the change in open carry policy, Walmart will also no longer sell short-barrel rifle ammunition, such as .223 and 5.56 caliber rounds that can be used in large-capacity clips on military-style weapons. The company will also end sales of handgun ammunition.
McMillon noted that the changes would likely reduce Walmart’s market share of ammunition from around 20 percent to “a range of approximately 6 percent to 9 percent,” he said.
Expansion Watch: Walmart’s March Into Medical
Walmart this week announced its push into offering consumers primary medical care with the opening of a new clinic focused on offering low cost primary care services in Georgia.
According to an update to its website that included a link to the now up and operational Walmart Health site, Walmart formally rolled out its new health clinic in Dallas Georgia. Walmart Heath is the digital patient portal where customers can set up appointments for care at the clinic which, according to Walmart, will give patients access to primary care, dental, counseling, labs, X-rays and audiology, among other services. The new clinic will also offer mental health services.
“Walmart is committed to making healthcare more affordable and accessible for customers in the communities we serve,” a Walmart representative told CNBC. “The new Walmart Health center in our Dallas, Georgia, store will provide low, transparent pricing for key health services for local customers. We look forward to sharing more details when the facility opens next month.”
Making New Friends: Walmart and FedEx Cozy Up Ahead of the Holidays
When FedEx formally dissolved its delivery relationship with Amazon earlier this year, it igot an awful lot of attention. What perhaps snuck a bit under everyone’s radar is how very much FedEx has been aiding Walmarts eCommerce ambitions quietly. Amazon’s loss in this case, according to reports, is Walmart’s gain.
Data from Rakuten Intelligence indicates that FedEx delivered some 55 percent of all of Walmart’s packages in Q2 2019, and was responsible for more than 60 percent of its last-mile deliveries.
The move is in line with FedEx’s stated plan to expand the eCommerce playing field as it is expanding the parcel delivery businesses. Along with moving the majority of Walmart’s packages, FedEx is rolling out Office locations in 500 Walmart stores nationwide where customers can print, ship and pick up deliveries.
“We’ve obviously got relationships with retailers of all sizes, and that certainly includes Walmart,” FedEx CMO Brie Carere told BI. “Our relationship with Walmart is very strong.”
And, as the holiday season is lurking just around the corner, and the second decade of the 21st century is heading for its final curtain call, a strong relationship with FedEx is an important buttress for Walmart as it races to get up to the high bar Amazon has set for the delivery of items ordered digitally.
But Amazon is also looking for ways to compete with the high accessibility Walmart has to offer — as every customer in the U.S. is less than a 15-minute drive to a Walmart location in the event they need to make a return of something that FedEx just delivered them from Walmart.
And to win, it won’t be enough to simply meet a competitor’s bar — that will just keep a player in the race. Winning that race will be in finding new ways to exceed what was offered before, not just meet it.