Comparatively speaking, the volume of news out of both Walmart and Amazon was down a bit this week in terms of efforts to capture the consumer’s whole paycheck. The name of the game this week was breadth, it seemed, particularly for Amazon, which held its big device event earlier this week and rolled out 15 new Alexa-enabled gadgets aimed at capturing consumers’ hearts (and a greater share of their paychecks). Walmart was a bit quieter by comparison, but did make another notable big step forward in its march into the healthcare industry.
And, as always, the B-reel contained some rather intriguing watch-and-wait possibilities — in Amazon’s case a looming takeover of the shipping business, and in Walmart’s yet another turn in the life of its luxury Jetblack brand.
Big Play of the Week: It’s Raining Alexa Devices
In an era when the term “techlash” is showing up increasing in articles, and think pieces are focusing more and more on how consumers are scaling back their device rosters, Amazon has decided to buck (or remake) the trend. This week the firm officially dropped its new lineup of Alexa-enabled devices, 15 in all.
Most of what was released was a new version of something the market had seen before — an upgraded Echo Dot with a clock embedded under its fabric cover, a souped-up version of a home speaker called the Echo Studio that will retail for $199 and compete more directly with Apple’s Home Pod product.
But there were also the more left-turn device introductions, including the much-anticipated Echo Buds, Amazon’s answer to the Airpod that reportedly features five hours of continuous battery life, with up to 20 hours with the included case. The Echo Buds will also be an agnostic addition to one’s device collection in terms of what voice artificial intelligence (AI) it will work with. Alexa is, of course, an option, but so are Siri and Google Assistant. Those will be available for pre-order shortly. Less expected entries into the wearables world from Amazon were also on display however. Echo Frames got a surprise public introduction. The Alexa-embedded eye glasses will be different from versions of smart glasses that have come before in that Echo Frames do not have a display or a camera. Instead they come pre-built with microphones so users can chat with Alexa without getting out a phone.
But perhaps the most unexpected introduction on device day wasn’t a device at all, but instead a famous voice — namely Samuel L. Jackson’s, and Alexa owners will be able to choose it as the voice of their Alexa. And for those who’ve always wondered what it would be like to have Alexa swear — good news, an explicit version of the Samuel L Jackson voice app is reportedly available for sale. Amazon noted that while Jackson will be the first celebrity voice rolled out for Alexa, it will not be the last and that more will be on deck in 2020.
We, of course, are holding out for Donald Duck.
And while Amazon’s big device rollout, and individual analysis, took up the bulk of the Amazon news cycle this week, it was not the only piece of the operation that managed to attract some attention.
Vertical Spanning Watch — Amazon’s Emerging Shipping Dominance
Shipping is a major cost for Amazon: the eCommerce giant sold $164 billion in goods off of its eCommerce marketplace last year, and spent around $27 billion shipping it all.
In light of the high cost of shipping, then, perhaps it should not be surprising that Amazon has invested in building its own delivery network. What may be surprising is just how large that network already is. According to reports this week, Amazon runs roughly 400 distribution warehouses in the U.S. alone, a fleet of 20,000-strong delivery vans and 60 cargo planes. That network is still under construction, but already delivers 60 percent of Amazon’s parcels, and is currently responsible for about one in five deliveries in the U.S.
The question that remains is how expansive Amazon wants to be with its delivery network once it is completed, or at least closer to completed. The wide speculation is that FedEx ad UPS are already in trouble if Amazon is delivering all of its own packages. (FedEx ended its business relationship with Amazon earlier this year). But, experts tend to agree, both companies are facing a risk of extinction if Amazon, once it takes care of its own delivery needs, decides to start selling its services to third parties.
And, perhaps even more worrying to third-party providers? Amazon is the firm making what is potentially the biggest future play at disrupting shipping logistics in the U.S. But it isn’t the only major brand getting in on the action. Walmart, for example, now runs over 6,000 of its own delivery trucks and has spent $2.5 billion on its “logistics wing” in the past two years.
And, speaking of Walmart …
Big Play of the Week: Another Big Step Forward In Healthcare
There is no secret to Walmart’s mounting ambitions to insert itself into the healthcare arena. A few weeks ago, the world’s largest retailer by sales announced the opening of the Walmart Health clinic in Georgia. The clinic is designed to offer a low-cost, comprehensive care center for local residents. Primary care, counseling, dental, X-rays, mental health, audiology and labs are among the services on offer.
Building off that announcement, Walmart announced this week that Sam’s Club is partnering with Humana and other companies to offer members in Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina discounts on healthcare services, including primary care and dental services. If successful, the pilot has already been earmarked for full rollout across the chain.
Starting next month, Sam’s Club members in test states can purchase one of four bundles that offer savings on several services, including unlimited telehealth for $1 per visit through an on-demand primary care app 98point6.
The bundles also offer free prescriptions on five to 20 generic medications depending on the bundle selected. The family bundle costs $240 per year and covers up to six family members. It includes free preventive screenings, up to a 30 percent discount on chiropractic, massage therapy and acupuncture services, and a 10 percent discount on hearing aids.
Speculation Watch: Is Jetblack Getting Bought Out?
Reports this week indicate that Walmart has reportedly been getting outside acquisition interest in JetBlack, its texting-based shopping platform geared toward affluent urban families in New York City.
The offering is the brainchild of Walmart eCommerce chief Marc Lore, and promises free delivery from a variety of retailers around the city on demand for $50 a month. According to Walmart, JetBlack customers spend about $1,500 per month on the service. The orders aren’t cheap to fill, but Walmart said it has gathered a lot of useful data on people’s shopping preferences.
But Walmart has also been reorganizing its eCommerce properties of late in a bid to save money and bring them closer within the control of its money-making retail unit. That has seen Jet.com pulled back more closely into Walmart’s orbit, and at least one of its recent acquisitions, ModCloth, likely heading off to be sold.
The potential move could see JetBlack sold outright, partnered with another company or even spun off into its own firm entirely.
But as always with speculation, it is best to keep an eye on what actually happens. Jetblack is popular with a desirable set of customers with valuable data on offer. Moreover, it is successful in an urban market — a battleground where Walmart has historically had difficulty competing with Amazon.
And in a race for the consumer’s whole paycheck, every inroad in every market counts.
Which is probably why Amazon is working so hard to put a delivery van on all of those inroads — and Alexa in each house to make it easier for consumers to direct those delivers to their front door.
Because even in the weeks when the race slows, it never stops so much as the course of the week and the hurdles in place shift around every so often.