The pumpkins are gone, the Christmas lights are starting to appear and Black Friday sales have started despite the fact that according to the calendar Black Friday won’t be happening for another 28 days. But November has officially arrived and with it the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season, when the race for the consumer’s whole paycheck — and then some — really gets into gear and becomes something of a race between every entity looking to capture consumer dollars.
But while the holiday shopping rush does have a habit of turning everything up to 11 in the retail world, the dynamics of the race in some ways remain the same, particularly in terms of its two fastest runners, Amazon and Walmart. This week, Amazon enriched its perks, expanded its Alexa reach into a strategically rich arena and casually kicked off its holiday shopping season. Walmart, meanwhile, was all about expanding its omnichannel capacities and reorganizing its offerings lineup.
The runners are done stretching at the starting line, and the race is officially off and sprinting to the end of the year.
Big Play of the Week: Alexa Can Now Pay Your Bills
Amazon’s Alexa users with Amazon Pay will soon see a big new capability being added to their relationship with their voice assistant. At an industry event earlier this week, Amazon officially announced that it is partnering with FinTech firm Paymentus to offer users the option of paying online or by voice using Alexa. Users can get notifications from Alexa when their bills are due, and they can also ask questions about the bill.
“Any customer whose utility is a member of the Paymentus Instant Payment Network (up to 700 billers) can soon use Alexa to get bill notifications as well as proactively find out when their next bill is due by asking Alexa,” Amazon said in a tweet on Sunday (Oct. 27).
Roughly 70 percent of customers do not enroll in automatic bill pay with their utility provider, and Amazon Pay Vice President Patrick Gauthier told MarketWatch this is a massive opportunity in the bill pay space waiting to be filled. Amazon expects the feature to reach 95 percent of ZIP codes by year-end. Moreover, Gauthier noted, Amazon also anticipates that utility bills will be just the start of their entrance into this vertical with Amazon Pay.
“There’s good opportunity across a range of things that people pay for on a recurring basis,” he told MarketWatch. “What I know we can do in a very unique way is to integrate the power of voice and AI into this.”
Payments function has been live in Alexa since 2017.
Perk Pickup of the Week: Free Fresh For Prime Members
Prime members are now able to access free “ultrafast” grocery delivery via Amazon Fresh as part of their standard membership. Amazon Fresh was previously available for a monthly fee of $14.99.
“Prime members love the convenience of free grocery delivery on Amazon, which is why we’ve made Amazon Fresh a free benefit of Prime, saving customers $14.99 per month,” said Stephenie Landry, VP of Grocery Delivery said, noting that grocery is one of the fastest growing businesses at Amazon.
The firm pointed out that members now get fast as well as free grocery delivery from Whole Foods Market and Amazon Fresh.
The company noted in the announcement its expansion of grocery delivery from Whole Foods Market and Amazon Fresh to additional venues over the last few months. As of today, Fresh grocery delivery is available in around 2,000 towns and cities.
“Customers are hungry for options that help them solve for both weekly meal planning and the moments when they need groceries in a pinch. Fast and free grocery delivery with Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods Market accomplishes both those needs,” Landry said.
The Device Discounts Are Starting
A big part of Amazon’s strategy in gaining ground in the race for the consumer’s whole paycheck is developing and if at all possible owning the emergence of the voice channel for commerce. Google is pretty committed to giving Amazon a race in that regard, as are a variety of global players. In that light, the first wave of device discounts was out as soon as the clock struck midnight on Nov. 1.
Amazon wants to get as many Alexa-compatible devices under trees, in stockings and in gift exchanges as possible this season — and there is no time like now to get started.
And so it has. As of Day 1 of the shopping season, the Echo Dot is under $50, and various Echo Plus smart device bundles are starting out under $150.
It’s a start, but if 2018 and 2017 are any indication, consumers probably can sit tight for a bit. Because in November and December the rule of the last few years has been pretty consistent: Deep smart device discounts, like winter, are coming.
Probably from many sources.
Big Play of the Week: The Big Omnichannel Accelerator Pair-Up
Walmart and Green Dot are longtime collaborators, having working together on the Walmart MoneyCard program since it launched in 2006. This week however, the two firms announced that not only are they renewing their financial services partnership, they are also deepening it with a joint venture that will go by the moniker TailFin Labs.
TailFin will be focused on the creation of new products, services and technologies that can improve both shopping and consumer financial services.
“The next megatrend is more integration,” Senior Vice President of Walmart Services and Digital Acceleration Daniel Eckert told Karen Webster shortly before the news broke. One big reason? “Consumers are time-starved.”
The challenge presented to TailFin FitTech accelerator participants, he said, will be in coming up with more omnichannel tools that take into account both retail and financial services functions and how they can be streamlined and made more fiction-free. And, Eckert told Webster, more easily manageable from a financial perspective for the customer. Better multi-channel retail tech integrated with FinTech, he said, makes a customer not only able to make a shopping list, but see what the effect of that shopping list will be on their MoneyCard purchases. It also allows customers to keep track of their spending on certain goods over long stretches of time to better unearth points they can be saving on.
“Those things could not be done before because the tech was not built in such a way to allow seamless continuity,” he told Webster.
The focus for now is in getting this accelerator effort off the ground — Walmart will hold the majority stake in that operation.
Where the roadmap is going next, Eckert said, is still under construction by Walmart and Green Dot.
Perks Pickup of the Week: Walmart Adds Limited Pickup For Alcohol
Walmart shoppers in select states will soon be able to pick up alcohol along with groceries at their local Walmart. The chain announced earlier this week that in 2,000 locations in 29 states consumers can use the retailer’s pickup service for their alcohol purchases.
“No matter what’s on your shopping list, Walmart Grocery Pickup is helping our customers keep time in their busy schedules,” Tom Ward, SVP of digital operations, said in a press release. “Now, without ever leaving their car, customers can pick up the perfect bottle of wine for dinner or beer for the big game. That’s something worth raising a glass to.”
Local laws do put some limits on the program — though grocery pickups can be scheduled in a wide range of time periods, alcohol can only be included in the order if local regulations allow it to be bought at that time. And at the time of pickup the driver must present a valid government-issued ID.
In addition, Walmart revealed it will be making deliveries of adult beverages from nearly 200 stores across California and Florida, with more states being added in accordance with local and state regulations.
But as some things grow at Walmart, some things shrink and even disappear …
Reshuffle of the Week: Vudu Faces a Sale
While everyone is getting into digital streaming, it looks like Walmart might just be the first big name in the game to bow out.
Vudu was something of a different animal when it launched 15 years ago, offering the ability to rent or buy individual shows or movies, in what was essentially an electronic version of a video rental store.
But that wasn’t the model that won out — people liked a monthly flat fee, access to a large catalog and a large swath of unique content offerings. Vudu never quite caught on, and days away from the dual launches of Apple and Disney streaming services reports are emerging that Walmart is looking to drop Vudu.
Walmart bought Vudu in 2010 for around $100 million, according to sources, and has started offering some original programming of late — which some are now taking not as a sign Walmart is looking to make the service more competitive, but rather that it is trying to make it a more valuable asset for a future sale.
Walmart, for its part, has offered no official comment on the topic one way or the other.
“Over the last nine years, we’ve built Vudu into an incredibly strong and growing business with an installed base of more than 100 million devices across America,” a Walmart spokesman wrote in an emailed response to the sale rumors. “We’re constantly having and [are] open to conversations with new and existing partners to explore opportunities for continued growth; however, we never share details of those discussions.”
So will Walmart prune down its streaming service ambitions in favor of strengthening its emerging interest in building better omnichannel shopping experiences? Will Amazon Fresh really delight the Prime base as much as expected? And what will the rest of the holiday shopping extravaganza bring?
Well, there’s only one way to find out — keep checking in here on Fridays, and we’ll keep you posted on the latest developments.