From The Final Week To The Final Mile: Amazon And Walmart Battle To The End

Amazon Delivery

As they finish up a year of massive disruption and exponential sales increases, Amazon and Walmart are taking their battle for the U.S. consumer’s whole paycheck into the last week of the holiday shopping season. But maybe it’s not the holiday shopping that’s the issue – maybe it’s the shipping.

In what has become a high-stakes game of cat and mouse for the retail industry, Amazon and Walmart are jousting to the end in an effort to win holiday shoppers’ last-minute orders and still get them delivered by Christmas. Whether it’s same-day, next day, two-day, in-store or curbside pickup, the retail giants have both posted their respective cut-off delivery dates right up until Dec. 24.  However, despite their promoted promises, both companies are actively using asterisks, terms and conditions that make their offers anything but clear.

“Pickup and Delivery: Slots are available to book through Dec. 24, pending availability*. Customers should use the Walmart app to check for local store availability. Express Delivery: Order by 1 pm local time through Dec. 24 for delivery in two hours or less, pending availability,*” Walmart said.

For its part, Amazon said that “members in thousands of cities and towns across 47 major metropolitan areas can shop for millions of items on Christmas Eve and receive them the same day with Prime Free Same-Day Delivery. For free delivery before Christmas, the following dates apply*”, noting that “*Not all delivery speeds are available for all products in all regions, and order minimums and cutoff times may apply.”

Clearly, both companies have laid out incredibly aggressive but highly conditional last-minute delivery promises – they are hardly iron-clad guarantees.

While Amazon enjoys the spoils of being the online sales leader, Walmart is still the brick-and-mortar king, with 4,748 U.S. stores that can fulfill last-minute orders. It has been widely reported that 90 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart, and the Arkansas-based retailer has already made strides to integrate these locations into its delivery mix.

By comparison, Amazon’s physical locations – excluding food and groceries – currently consist of about 30 “Amazon 4 Star” stores, about 25 bookstores and seven Amazon Pop Up shops.

Unlike Walmart, Amazon also has its own Delivery Service Partner (DSP) program that launched in 2018. While it is not known how many drivers and vans Amazon currently has access to, or the percentage of its deliveries that are handled by this in-house unit, the company said in August that it had 85,000 people and 40,000 vans working in DSP.

As online shopping has grown over the past decade, the demand for delivery by UPS and FedEx has followed suit. While there were reports following a super-busy Black Friday online shopping surge that said some retailers would face capacity cuts or delays, those bottlenecks never materialized on a wide-scale basis.

While the two leading shippers both add huge armies of seasonal workers and vehicles each year, and pre-book capacity with large clients months in advance, the coronavirus has complicated their efforts to deliver as much as the surge in online shopping demands.

At the same, both companies are also committing resources to the massive COVID vaccine delivery that got underway this week.

Amazon Focuses on Returns

And, of course, part of the risk when gunning for the consumer’s whole paycheck is returns. Amazon, with minimal store locations, is vulnerable on this front. So it was a significant development on Thursday (Dec. 17) when the company issued a press release reminding consumers that they have alternate physical locations set up for returns, and it has also made it easier for consumers to set up returns online.

First, Amazon is expanding its returns window. Most items shipped between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2020, can be returned until Jan. 31, 2021. Second, it is equipping more Whole Foods Market stores to accept box-free, label-free returns. This option is also available at other Amazon-owned locations, including Amazon Books, Amazon 4-star, Amazon Fresh grocery stores and Amazon Go stores. And the retailer stressed that returns will be accepted at its other retail partners: UPS Stores and Kohl’s.

“During a holiday season that might be more unpredictable than years past, our employees want to help customers have one less thing to think about by giving customers more time to return, and by providing a variety of free, convenient and easy return options this year,” said Libby Johnson McKee, director of Amazon WW Returns, reCommerce and sustainability. “Our hope is that by offering so many return options — from tens of thousands of drop-off locations to shipping an item back — as well as more time to think about making a return, customers can relax and shop with confidence this holiday season.”