As the U.S. is preparing to make its move from more or less closed for business to the road to recovery in an increasing number of places, businesses big and small are looking for ways to upgrade, update and pivot their services. The growing consensus is that the economy that will reopen over the next several weeks will not be the same as the one that closed down in early March — and that consumers who’ve spent the last two months reorienting their lives around digital services might just decide there is no good reason to go back to the way things used to be.
Which makes it unsurprising that it has been a week of interesting new rollouts from both Amazon and Walmart, as both seek to capitalize on the bounce they’ve seen from the great pandemic purchasing shift of early 2020. New shops, new goods and big shifts when it comes to core grocery services marked the headlines out of the two largest retailers in the nation and leading competitors to capture the largest share imaginable of the consumer’s whole paycheck. The big question of the week out of both racers seems to have been how to do more or do better in meeting rising consumer expectations of all kinds.
Big News of the Week: Back in the Grocery Saddle Again
It seems the Amazon grocery delivery waitlist woes of the last few weeks have been resolved. According to reports, the waitlist to get a slot on Amazon Fresh has finally dissipated in most locations. The era of waiting weeks to get a timeslot seems to be ebbing back.
“We’ve removed the invite list in most cities, and more than 80 percent of eligible Prime members are able to shop without requesting an invitation,” an Amazon spokeswoman told CNET in a statement late Tuesday (May 12).
The picking up of the pace, according to Amazon, comes as warehouses are once again properly stocked after an unexpected surge in demand for things like home goods, groceries and medical supplies. In addition, Prime Pantry is also back after being unavailable for nearly two months. The eCommerce giant also announced the return of non-essential items to its warehouses, after an announcement last month that the firm had prioritized delivering essential items — wellness, cleaning and non-perishable home essentials — and limited shipments for unnecessary goods.
In March, Amazon told sellers it was temporarily stopping shipments of nonessential items to warehouses to make room for needed medical supplies and household staples, a policy it reversed earlier this month.
Advocacy of the Week: Amazon Urges Anti-Price Gouging Laws
Amazon, which spent much of March beset by price gougers using its platform to sell items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer amid exorbitant mark-ups, this week urged Congress to enact legislation to ban gouging attempts during times of national emergency.
“The disparate standards among states present a significant challenge for retailers working to assist law enforcement, protect consumers, and comply with the law,” Brian Huseman, vice president of public policy at Amazon, wrote in a blog post.
Huseman argued that only a federal law will create the consistency needed to really push back on price gouging in a uniform way. Amazon, along with Facebook, eBay and other marketplace eCommerce platforms, has been under pressure from more than 30 attorneys general to curtail the worst gouger abuses on their sites — like those charging $400 for a large bottle of hand sanitizer.
And though Amazon has invested massive amount of time and treasure enforcing what Huseman described in the blog post as the firm’s “zero tolerance policy for price gouging” in recent weeks, to really make a dent in the problem will require more than the participation of individual platforms in trying to push back the gougers who routinely show up in the face of every emergency.
“While each state is unique and has the ability to enact individual legislative price gouging triggers and remedies, a federal price gouging law would ensure that there are no gaps in protection for consumers. This would also help retailers like Amazon more effectively prevent bad actors and ensure fair prices,” he wrote.
Security Woe of the Week: A New Batch of Alexa Scammers
Amazon is taking two companies to court on accusations of “widespread tech support fraud” launched against users of Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant and smart speakers. According to filings has week in a U.S. District Court in Seattle, Amazon accuses the two firms — Robojap Technologies in Washington state and Quatic Software Solutions in Punjab, India — of scamming Amazon users with offers of help in setting up Alexa on their devices through “fraudulent websites and applications.”
The companies allegedly used “Amazon’s trademarks, as well as false and misleading statements about Amazon and [the companies’] services, to divert victims from Amazon’s genuine activation process and customer support,” according to court filings.
Amazon describes a process by which representatives of both firms would, via offers of technical support for Alexa devices, attempt to convince consumers of the existence of technical issues preventing the Alexa-enabled device from working.
“Those claims are also entirely false and fraudulent, and no such issues exist,” Amazon said in the complaint, adding that the companies would then “offer services to fix these phony issues, charging customers hundreds of dollars to take the simple steps actually required to activate an Alexa device that Amazon fully supports through its own customer care.”
Neither firm has responded to requests for comment, though Amazon is apparently pretty adamant about getting them to cease and desist.
“Amazon works hard to protect our customers, and the blatant misuse of our brand to deceive unsuspecting customers setting up their new device is appalling,” a company spokesperson said in a statement to CNN Business.
Big News of the Week: The Great App Consolidation
And then there was one.
The Walmart grocery app, after only a few years in service, will be taking its final bow over the next few weeks, as its function is incorporated directly into the main Walmart app, and the grocery related standalone is phased out.
The reason? Walmart said customers told the retailer they want simplicity.
“After listening to customer feedback, we found that customers wanted to shop without switching between apps,” Walmart said in its letter to consumers released earlier this week.
The move comes just after App Annie reported that Walmart’s grocery app recently hit an all-time high in downloads, surpassing Amazon by 20 percent. As of April 5, the most recent rankings available, Walmart Grocery ranked No. 1 among shopping apps in the U.S. Walmart Grocery also experienced a 460 percent growth in average daily downloads when compared to what it saw in January 2020.
Outside observers tend to agree the change is a win-win for Walmart, as the retailer can save money budgeted toward mobile marketing. Moreover, putting all commerce function in a single location for customers increases the chance customers will also buy other, non-grocery items from Walmart while they are digital grocery shopping.
Employee Advantage of the Week: Another Round of Bonuses
It looks like more bonus funds are coming to Walmart and Sam’s Club employees as a reward for their difficult and at times dangerous frontline work during the pandemic. Walmart recently announced plans to distribute a bonus of $300 for full-time hourly associates and $150 for part-time hourly and temporary associates to be paid out before June 25. In order to receive a bonus, employees must have worked for the company as of June 5.
“Walmart and Sam’s Club associates continue to do remarkable work, and it’s important we reward and appreciate them. All across the country, they’re providing Americans with the food, medicine and supplies they need, while going above and beyond the normal scope of their jobs – diligently sanitizing their facilities, making customers and members feel safe and welcome, and handling difficult situations with professionalism and grace,” said John Furner, president and CEO of Walmart U.S.
The latest allocation of bonus funds now brings Walmart’s total amount committed to employee bonuses to a little over $935 million. Previously Walmart paid out a special cash bonus worth $365 million, and their annual Q1 bonuses, worth about $185 million.
In the statement announcing the latest round of bonuses, Walmart also noted it will explore other ways to reward and recognize its associates, while staying focused on their overall well-being and safety.
To the latter end, Walmart noted it has implemented daily health screens and temperature checks, provided masks and gloves, and offered emotional well-being options such as virtual counseling.
Expansion of the Week: Walmart Looks to the Great Outdoors
Summer vacation is changing, with road trips and campouts rapidly replacing amusement parks and resort hotels as health-conscious and social distancing enthusiasts are eschewing their normal more crowded vacations in favor of communing with nature and enjoying some solitude.
Walmart wants to help, with the rollout of Lithic, a line of backpacking gear built for slightly more serious outdoors people, but priced for interested amateurs. The Lithic line includes camping classics like one- to three-person tents, down sleeping bags and camping stoves — gear that various sites have noted is highly comparable to gear made by specialty outdoor manufacturers but purchasable at prices roughly 40 percent lower than similar products offered by those firms.
“The outdoor industry will not grow without attracting a more diverse customer base, and diversity will not happen without inclusivity,” Eoin Comerford, general manager of eCommerce for Walmart’s outdoor division, said of the idea. The goal, he noted, is to simply increase outdoor participation with more inclusive gear priced for regular people entering the backcountry for the first time.
But, Comerford noted, Walmart doesn’t see itself as a competitor to those specialty retailers already deeply in the game.
“The vast majority of Walmart customers who will buy Lithic gear have never walked into a specialty retailer,” he said.
But they will walk into a Walmart, and in the era of trying to find activities away from crowds, Lithic might just find itself uniquely appealing to burgeoning outdoors enthusiasts on a budget.
Because as this week has demonstrated, change is the name of the game in retail as of now. And both Walmart and Amazon are running fast and working to build an entirely new racecourse at the same time.