With an eye on the future of online retailing, Walmart and Google are teaming up to go after rival Amazon in a play that also targets the growing market for voice-activated shopping.
Starting next month, Walmart customers will be able to access hundreds of thousands of products from the company's shelves — everything from dishwashing soap to dining tables — via the online retailing service Google Express. Until now, Walmart's enormous inventory was available online only through the company's own website.
Walmart customers will be able to place an order by simply saying it out loud, using either the Google Assistant app or the voice-activated speaker Google Home.
Voice-enabled shopping is still in its infancy, but analysts say it is a rapidly growing piece of the pie.
"When it comes to voice shopping, we want to make it as easy as possible for our customers. That's why it makes sense for us to team up with Google," Marc Lore, the president and CEO of Walmart U.S. eCommerce, writes in a blog post Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, Google announced that it was getting rid of a $95 annual membership fee for Express and would offer free delivery on orders above a certain amount.
Walmart says it will leverage its 4,700 U.S. stores and its fulfillment network "to create customer experiences that don't currently exist within voice shopping anywhere else, including choosing to pick up an order in store (often for a discount) or using voice shopping to purchase fresh groceries across the country," Lore writes.
Existing Walmart customers will also be able to link their Walmart account to Google to receive personalized shopping results based on online and in-store purchases. "For example, if you order Tide PODS or Gatorade, your Google Assistant will let you know which size and type you previously ordered from Walmart, making it easy for you to buy the right product again," Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google's senior vice president for ads and commerce, said in a blog post.
Walmart and Amazon have gone head-to-head for customers in a battle that has pitted the biggest bricks-and-mortar retailer against the largest online one. In the tit-for-tat competition for customers, Walmart is moving to establish a stronger e-commerce presence and Amazon is aiming to capture a bigger chunk of Walmart's lower-income customer base.
Amazon's share of online sales dwarfs every other retailer, including Walmart. And the competition is only ramping up. On Wednesday, Whole Foods shareholders approved Amazon's acquisition of the natural foods giant.
In June, Amazon announced that it would drop the price of its Amazon Prime membership for customers with a valid electronic benefits transfer card — used for such programs as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs, or food stamps. And last year, Walmart acquired Amazon competitor Jet.com, paying $3.3 billion.
But Amazon's Alexa-powered Echo dominates in voice-activated speakers and is set to control 70 percent of the market by the end of this year, according to eMarketer. Google, which introduced shopping to its Home speaker in February, is a distant second, though it is expected to gradually increase its share. In June, Apple unveiled its own version of a voice-activated speaker device, the HomePod.
The Wall Street Journal writes: "A significant portion of online shopping is made up of consumers reordering the same staples. That is well-adapted to voice ordering because a device can recall the preferred brand, size and type, without requiring shoppers to scan through different product listings."
And as The New York Times notes: "Google is a laggard in e-commerce. Since starting a shopping service in 2013, it has struggled to gather significant momentum."
Adding Walmart's huge product line to the mix would likely be a boon to Google Express, but for Walmart, it means going head-to-head online with many of the same retailers it has battled on terra firma — including such giants as Target and Costco, whose products already appear on Google Express.
"We know this means being compared side by-side with other retailers, and we think that's the way it should be," Lore writes. "An open and transparent shopping universe is good for customers."