Sometimes even the fastest runners need to take a break, and after the 16-week continuous retail sprint that is the annual holiday shopping rush, it is no great surprise that both Amazon and Walmart were relatively quiet in the first week of the new decade.
Of course, taking a break is a relative term when it comes to the race for the consumer’s whole paycheck — Walmart, according to most reports, is running barn-burner deals that rival Black Friday savings. Amazon’s saving bonanza, on the other hand, is more limited and pitched directly to Prime Members.
A slow week and a stopped week are two different things, and while forward motion was somewhat limited, there were some reasonably good hints about the shape of things to come when it comes to strategy, voice technology, product expansions and technological innovations.
Big News of the Week: The Next Round of Voice Innovation
With CES set to kick off in Las Vegas this week, the predictions are already ramping up for what new, exciting and innovative new designs and prototypes will make the rounds and capture the headlines. As has been the trend for the last few years, increasingly that buzz is about voice-activated artificial intelligence (AI) assistants like Alexa and Google assistant.
And 2020, it seems, will not be bucking that trend so much as doubling down on it — as both Amazon and its closest U.S.-based rival Google will be making a hard press on the benefits of the voice-integrated life for CES attendees.
New features are rumored, though specifics are few and far between. Amazon is widely expected to make a particularly strong push in the area of the connected car, speculation that dovetails with reports out last week that Amazon is experiencing skyrocketing demand from auto manufacturers to find ways to embed Amazon’s voice-activated technology into their vehicles.
Demand is “through the roof” as 2020 rings in, according to Ned Curic, vice president of Alexa Auto.
“Two and a half years ago, we had nothing,” he said. “We’re much further than I thought we would be. I’m quite pleased with the speed we were able to build and deploy.”
Amazon is also widely expected to highlight its over 100,000 skills available to users in multiple contexts and expansion into other devices. As of today, Amazon's virtual assistant is now capable of controlling above 85,000 smart home products from more than 9,500 brands.
Stay tuned next week for the first look at what actually appears on the floor at CES.
Tech Upgrade of the Week: Hand Recognition Patent Filed
Amazon has filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office on a device that would reportedly identify individuals through unique biometric qualities and characteristics associated with the palms of their hands.
Filed on Dec. 26, the application details a “scanner device [that] is used to obtain raw images of a user’s palm that is within a field of view of the scanner … The first set of images depicts external characteristics, such as lines and creases in the user’s palm, while the second set of images depicts internal anatomical structures, such as veins, bones, soft tissue, or other structures beneath the epidermis of the skin.”
The device is thought to be applicable to the 24 (and counting) Amazon Go cashierless convenience store locations that currently require users to scan a special app at a turnstile before shopping. The new biometric technology could, theoretically replace that process — allowing Amazon to bill users after scanning their hand upon entry. The move could be tremendously disruptive within the realm of brick-and-mortar retail — if it goes through. Many patent applications never materialize into actual technology.
And, thus far, Amazon has declined to comment on the patent application.
Big News of the Week: Walmart Recenters on the Supercenter
A little over a year after Walmart announced at an investor meeting that it viewed its eCommerce business as a growing equal to its brick-and-mortar operations, it seems Walmart is rethinking things a bit.
Walmart still intends to compete in the era of digital commerce, according to CEO Doug McMillon, but it intends to do so using its thousands of supercenter locations nationwide as the heart of its business network and its consumer acquisition efforts.
McMillon said said during a strategy meeting that supercenters are the focus of the company’s plan, as they represent a hub of consumer activity — whether that be general merchandise shopping, groceries or healthcare.
To buttress its capacities, Walmart has announced its intention to create “edge computing” capacity in which data is processed nearer to where it is taken in. (That is a quicker system than sending information to the cloud.) The system could be particularly useful as Walmart is expanding into the data heavy work of autonomous vehicles. Reports in late December indicated that Walmart is teaming with autonomous vehicle company Nuro to roll out a pilot program that will test grocery delivery in the Houston market.
Tom Ward, senior vice president of digital operations for Walmart U.S., said in a release at the time, “Nuro’s vision of using robotics to improve lives runs parallel with Walmart’s mission of helping customers live better.”
Live better, and if recent reports are to be believed, dress better as well.
Expansion of the Week: Walmart’s Apparel Moves
Walmart, according to market watchers, is on the verge of making some big improvements to its fashion game in 2020, particularly in the eCommerce end of things.
As of the start of the year Walmart currently stocks more than 600 fashion brands, 150 of which are exclusive to Walmart. Walmart notably hit some bumps in the apparel road in 2019, as over the summer reports circulated that Walmart’s three big eCommerce buys of 2019 — Modcloth, Bonobos and Eloquii — were all unprofitable. ModCloth has already been sold off, and speculation has circulated that Bonobos and Eloquii could face the same face; speculation that intensified with news that Bonobos founder and Walmart’s current head of digital consumer brands Andy Dunn will be stepping down at the end of the month.
Walmart has since confirmed, however, that both Bonobos and Eloquii will remain part of the Walmart fashion family. The brand has also promised greater investment and marketing.
“It’s clear that Walmart has started to shift their focus from discounting to connecting people to the right products, in order to get shoppers to return and buy more. In 2020, I expect Walmart to expand its fashion business to focus more on curation and quality [with a focus on companies like] Eloquii,” said Sherene Hilal, VP of product marketing and business operations at retail technology company Bluecore.
Will a different push and more focus do the trick? That remains to be seen, though Bonobos revenue did start to show signs of invigorated growth as 2019 wound down. Will a change in perspective give it the spark it needs to get up and running in 2020?
That also remains to be seen — as does the shape of Amazon’s voice ambitions for this year, or how exactly a supercenter-focused strategy will play out for Walmart.
But we’ll be here to track it every week as it happens in real time — because whatever else comes next, we know that lulls in the race for the consumer's whole paycheck are very short.