This week, the battle for the U.S. consumer's whole paycheck is more like a boxing match. In this corner, the brick-and-mortar champion, Walmart. And in the opposite corner, the online market share king, Amazon. And they’re fighting for the biggest prize of them all: American holiday consumer spending.
While the motives and intentions are clear at a high level (both want the whole paycheck), at other levels they deserve some scrutiny. For both fighters, this week was about scheduling. Walmart announced it would close for Thanksgiving, but left the rest of its opening weekend plans open. For its part, Amazon announced it would not announce Prime Day … yet.
The drama is just starting to unfold.
Amazon’s motives in not committing to a Prime Day date are complex. Three scenarios could develop, all of which will affect Walmart as well as the rest of the U.S. retail industry.
The first is that Prime Day won’t happen at all. It’s not a far-fetched idea. For Amazon, Prime Day is a huge risk in an economy that is far from stable. Amazon could decide that Prime Day is not in the spirit of the pandemic, and that it’s too aggressive at a time when caution might be the better option. And if the retailer was dead-set on naming a day, why didn’t it stick with the Oct. 5 date it gave its biggest sellers? These tea leaves could be read as an unwillingness to go full speed ahead. Not to mention the fact that Prime Day 2020 might come in at a lower number than 2019. That would be a bad day in Seattle (and a good day in Bentonville).
The second scenario is placing Prime Day on Black Friday, a move that would smack of evil genius. Remember that Walmart has not yet caved on Black Friday sales — it has only said it would treat them differently. But unless a miracle cure for the pandemic is discovered, distributed and administered by Thanksgiving, Black Friday will most likely not involve crowds and crushing in-store dashes.
So imagine the discussions in Amazon's conference rooms. Retailing abhors a vacuum — and there’s a vacuum here. One of the biggest shopping days of the year — Black Friday — has been, for all intents and purposes, canceled. Amazon comes in with Prime Day, and the billions left on the table by the absence of Black Friday will likely go to the place where all paychecks should go (if you ask Amazon).
The third scenario places Prime Day sometime between Nov. 1 and Thanksgiving. That would be quite the anti-climax. With consumer budgets in a dicey spot, it’s unlikely that Amazon would attract any holiday business by scheduling in November. Same goes for picking a day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Boring.
Now for Walmart’s holiday championship strategy. Remember, one of the reasons Prime Day is important to Amazon is that it serves as an engine for the world’s most successful loyalty program: Amazon Prime. Walmart has a dog in that hunt as well. It’s called Walmart+, and according to several sources, it will be a Prime competitor that could include same-day delivery of groceries and merchandise, discounts at gas stations and early access to select deals. It could be that Walmart is waiting to unveil its Plus strategy until it sees what Amazon will do with Prime Day. Because Walmart has the advantage of a partial launch in selected cities, online only, it can wait and execute on a dime. Amazon doesn’t have that option right now.
Here’s a bold prediction: Walmart will try to own Cyber Monday. It will get maximum attention for a Walmart+ launch, even if it’s a limited launch. That would also provide a compelling competitive hedge against Amazon’s claim on the day, and would cement Walmart’s commitment as an eCommerce player rather than an eCommerce interloper. Either that or could try a similar strategy with Black Friday, essentially turning the day after Thanksgiving into Walmart+ Day.
Regardless of what happens, the retail and consumer spending world hangs in the balance at a critical time. Holiday 2020 will not be for the faint of heart.
'Alexa, Book Me an Uber'
If there was an underplayed story this week from either Amazon, Walmart or one of their subsidiaries, it was Amazon’s Alexa Live developers' conference. It is events like these that eventually produce new consumer-facing features, and several estimates put the number of Alexa developers at 700,000. It also shows Amazon's continued commitment to voice commerce.
The highlight of the event was the beta launch of Alexa Conversations. The overall idea is to make it easier for users to have a natural conversation with their Alexa devices. The feature was first presented to the developer community in early June. According to Amazon, Alexa Conversations is "a new deep learning-based approach that developers can use for creating natural voice experiences on Alexa with less effort, fewer lines of code, and less training data than before." It aims to help developers create "natural, flexible dialogues within a single skill," with plans to incorporate multiple skills in future iterations.
For the eventual consumer application, Conversations can allow developers to string Alexa apps together to purchase movie tickets, order a ride-sharing service or book dinner reservations. (OpenTable, Uber and Atom Tickets were early adopters.) That means a consumer can literally have a dialogue with Alexa to plan an evening. According to VentureBeat, Conversations can combine elements from multiple apps without much effort from developers.
Amazon is also planning a new feature for the Echo that will launch Android and iOS apps using voice commands. The feature positions Alexa as a competitor of Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant. Called Alexa for Apps, the new feature will first launch in preview form.
“For instance, Amazon imagines users on either an iPhone or an Android device asking Alexa to open Twitter and search for a hashtag, and the app would then let the companion Alexa skill do the work of launching the app and inputting the search term,” according to tech news source The Verge. “The results would then show up on the phone instead of being read aloud. Another example Amazon gives is using a voice request to launch TikTok and start a hands-free video recording (in the event you’re filming yourself).”
'Alexa, Order from Sam’s Club'
Of course, Walmart also wants a part of the paycheck through its warehouse club. And another underplayed story was the stellar July that Walmart’s Sam’s Club, along with other discount clubs, is having. According to data from SKU-level research company Placer.ai, Sam’s Club has been on the rise, and BJ’s Wholesale Club has seen a massive surge since the start of the pandemic.
Sam’s Club, according to Placer’s weekly data, saw visits looking strong in early 2020, but its regional distribution and lower starting sales (in comparison to BJ's and Costco) helped it see significant gains in March before visits began to decline year over year in April. Sam’s Club's June visits were up year over year by 3.4 percent.
“The pace for the sector has been steady with a pickup the week of July 6. Clearly, rising concerns of a new shutdown are providing a lift,” says Placer.ai. “But it is critical to remember the built-in effect that club memberships benefit from in driving repeat visits. If you’re willing to shell out money for a yearly membership, the likelihood of you returning to maximize this ‘investment’ is very high. Not to mention that the value orientation of these brands is clearly a strong fit in the current economic environment. As a result, Sam’s Club and BJ’s both saw weekly visits at 7.7 percent and 22.1 percent respectively in terms of year-over-year growth that week – impressive numbers.”