The big winner in the headlines race this week was certainly Amazon, which dropped a stronger than expected Q4 earnings report capped off with the announcement that its Prime membership subscriptions had reached the 150 million user mark.
Walmart had plenty of news, though nothing quite so eye-catching as Amazon’s earnings report for the holiday quarter — it will get its own bite at that apple in about two weeks. But this week there were reports that the eCommerce shakeup is moving along and that it will stake out new ground entirely this weekend — at the Super Bowl.
In short, lots to watch this week, with lots of signposts for what to look for next in the race for the consumer’s whole paycheck. Starting with …
Big News of the Week: Prime’s Q4 Membership Power-up
There were a lot of big figures thrown around during Amazon’s earnings report for a holiday quarter it had already called “record-breaking” at the beginning of January, but the number that immediately caught everyone’s attention was 150 million — the number of Prime users Amazon now calls its own. According to CEO Jeff Bezos, “more people joined Prime this quarter than ever before.”
Amazon’s last official update was in April of 2018, when it reported more than 100 million members in the program.
Outside of Prime, subscriptions services seem to have ended 2019 strong. Revenue from subscription services — which includes Prime membership fees, Music Unlimited and Prime Video Channels subscriptions — came in at $5.24 billion for the quarter, up 32 percent from 2019. In the earnings release, Amazon noted that Music Unlimited subscribers grew more than 50 percent in 2019, though it declined to attach more specific figures to that.
In other notable Q4 news, pre-release concerns that Amazon’s switch to one-day shipping from two would take a significant bite out of its quarterly performance don’t seem to have been borne out in the numbers. Revenue was up 21 percent during the holiday quarter, growing to $87.44 billion, well ahead of analyst expectations of $86.02 billion. Net income rebounded during Q4, with 8 percent year-over-year growth to $3.27 billion, which topped analyst expectations of $2 billion. That compares to last quarter when Amazon reported a net income drop of 26 percent year over year, as the firm absorbed the costs of adding one-day delivery. Amazon reported earnings per share of $6.47, ahead of the $4.03 forecast pre-release.
On its earnings call, Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky told investors that the costs of one-day shipping during Q4 had come in “slightly under” $1.5 billion, and noted that Amazon plans to spend $1 billion more on the initiative during Q1, and “again in [the second quarter].” He added that he fully expects that “we’ll start to lap this,” and costs will become more efficient as volume grows, new routes are put into place and additional delivery technology is added into the mix.
In other news, Amazon saw strong performance out of AWS, which brought in $9.95 billion, ahead of the $9.81 billion forecast. That represents a 34 percent increase from the same time the year before, but a slight decrease from Q3, when AWS saw its revenue increase by 35 percent year over year.
The only notable area of decline, but one perhaps to watch, is in Amazon’s physical stores, which saw a year-on-year revenue dip of 1 percent. That segment is mostly comprised of revenue generated by Whole Foods.
Accessibility Update: Amazon Expands SNAP Benefits Testing
Amazon announced this week that it will expand its online purchasing for SNAP (more commonly known as food stamps) pilot with the USDA into the Pacific Northwest following its rollout in New York last spring.
“This is the first time that hundreds of thousands of SNAP recipients in Washington can redeem their grocery benefits online,” Amazon said in its corporate blog. “Amazon enthusiastically volunteered to work with the USDA and participate in this landmark pilot because we believe in the goals of this program and its potential to significantly extend the value of SNAP benefits.”
The post went on to note that people using the SNAP program should be able to buy groceries using the same online resources that American consumers on the whole are using such as online grocery procurement.
As is the case in New York, Amazon Fresh and Pantry will be available to Washington SNAP recipients who can use their SNAP EBT as a payment method without a Prime membership and will receive free shipping. The goal, according to Amazon, is to “dramatically increase access to food for more remote customers and help to mitigate the public health crisis of food deserts.”
Amazon said it will look to expand the pilot beyond its first two states in 2020 — Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Oregon are all on the list for next expansions, according to a statement from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. Eventually, according to the agency, the goal is to make online grocery and option for all SNAP users.
Walmart, notably, to speed along the process, already allows online ordering for SNAP recipients. When SNAP is chosen at checkout, the employee delivering groceries brings a card reader to swipe the SNAP card so that the customer can complete the transaction.
And speaking of Walmart …
Big News of the Week : Walmart Comes To The Greatest Show On Turf
Despite sharing a status with the Super Bowl as being an American institution, Walmart has never actually run an advertisement at the big game before. But then, Walmart has never been in a race for the consumer’s whole paycheck and pushing digital grocery in a bid to fend off Amazon before either.
This year’s ads are meant to show off the many wonders of its expanding grocery pick-up services, built around a standard premise “Famous Visitors.”
Who are those visitors? Apparently characters in popular movies and TV programs who “touch down on Earth” from “across the galaxy” to collect groceries and other products at Walmart curbside pickup stations. On the guest list for the ads: Flash Gordon, Buzz Lightyear, Bill S. Preston of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Arrival, Blade Runner, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Lego Movie, Mars Attacks!, Marvin the Martian, Men in Black, Star Trek and Star Wars.
“What better way to show off the out-of-this-world convenience of Walmart’s pickup service than the biggest television event of the year,” Janey Whiteside, executive vice president and chief customer officer at Walmart, said in a blog post.
eCommerce Update: More Layoffs and Changes
A new round of layoffs have come to Walmart, this time at an eCommerce office in New York City. Though the layoffs will not go into effect until the end of April, 29 of the office’s 56 employees will be let go. The office focused on Walmart’s Allswell mattress brand and a few other brand incubation efforts.
The Allswell brand, however, seems safe. The move is part of a larger effort on Walmart’s part to bring more of its eCommerce and brand operations in house according to a Walmart spokesperson.
“Our incubation strategy was designed to create unique brands that reach niche customer audiences,” the Walmart spokesperson said. “We’re integrating many of these brands as private brands within Walmart as we continue to deepen our category expertise and strengthen our ability to offer customers a larger range of products.”
The move follows 200 layoffs at Hayneedle, another digital brand in the Walmart stable, and an announcement late last year that Jet.com would be folded into Walmart’s wider eCommerce operations.
“This natural progression of integrating an acquisition allows us to fully leverage Walmart’s assets for Jet and leverage Jet’s talent for Walmart,” Walmart eCommerce CEO Marc Lore said in a blog post at the time.
That acquisition progression, it seems, is ongoing — and will likely be worth watching as Walmart’s efforts at digital consolidation continue.
But then, as this week demonstrated, there will likely be few weeks with a shortage of things worth watching. Because as Walmart and Amazon race for their share of the consumer’s whole paycheck, you never really know what the latest front will be in any given week.