Walmart and Google are teaming up to enter the voice-shopping market, currently dominated by Amazon’s Alexa.
From next month, US consumers will be able to buy Walmart products using the voice-activated Google Assistant platform on phones and home devices.
The US supermarket giant said it would be offering hundreds of thousands of items through the Google Assistant platform, from September.
It is Google’s biggest partnership in the retail sector as it seeks to beef up the reach of its voice-controlled speakers.
For Walmart, it opens up a new front in its battle with Amazon – whose online sales growth threatens traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers.
Amazon also dominates the nascent voice-shopping market.
In the US, it has the lion’s share of the voice-controlled device industry, with its Echo devices accounting for 72% of the market in 2016, compared to the Google Home gadget’s 22%, according to research from eMarketer.
Walmart has been fighting back, offering discounts for click-and-collect customers and free delivery for orders above $35.
Its new move into voice shopping will integrate its quick reordering tool into Google’s same-day delivery service.
Marc Lore, president and chief executive of Walmart’s US eCommerce division, said the “exciting partnership” would help it make shopping “faster and easier” for customers.
“One of the primary use cases for voice shopping will be the ability to build a basket of previously-purchased everyday essential,” he said.
Lore said the plans would be rolled out further next year, with Walmart using its 4,700 US stores to “create customer experiences that don’t currently exist within voice shopping anywhere else”.
Customers might be able to use voice shopping to pick up a discounted order in-store or buy fresh groceries across the country.
Amazon and Google’s voice-controlled speaker devices are gaining in popularity but are mainly still being used for tasks such as making phone calls or playing music rather than shopping.
Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, owns Asda in the UK. There was no mention in the announcement about whether the tie-up with Google would be extended outside the US.
Amazon’s AI virtual assistant Alexa already enables users to shop directly from the online retail giant.
The partnership enables Walmart to challenge Amazon’s dominance of the US voice shopping market.
Walmart’s head of e-commerce Marc Lore wrote in a blog post that the retailer plans to expand the use of voice-activated shopping across its 4,700 stores to “create customer experiences that don’t currently exist within voice shopping anywhere else”.
For example, Walmart, which owns the UK’s Asda supermarket, could offer consumers the choice of picking up an order in store at a discount, or enable users to use voice shopping to purchase fresh groceries across the country.
“Will probably will help Google more than Walmart”
Dr Zhewei Zhang, of Warwick Business School, Assistant Professor of Information Systems and researches digital innovation, said: “I am not surprised at Walmart teaming up with Google for voice shopping as other major brick-and-mortar retailers like Target and Costco have already done so with Google. The question is if this move will actually help Walmart compete with Amazon.
“For me, I don’t see Walmart as a rival to Amazon. Amazon is not just a retailer selling things online but also a platform provider which tries to connect people to the online world. Alexa represents a much bigger ambition than just another way of doing online shopping.
“This partnership probably will help Google more than Walmart as Google Home, Alexa, Siri, and Cortana are competing to be our personal AI assistant. I will not be surprised if one day Amazon sells its retail business like IBM did with its PC business.
“Voice shopping may not look very useful right now. Indeed, purchase experience through Alexa is quite mixed as many people find it hard to use and do not see the point. However, I do believe it is the future of online shopping.
“Currently, most online shopping still has to be done through either a PC or smartphone, which is a computer-centered experience. However, the emergence of smart devices, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality are creating a ubiquitous computing environment, bringing a human-centered experience.
“Voice shopping itself may not necessarily be the very best way of future online shopping, but it certainly shows how people may interact with their environment in a natural and human-centered way and get things done, whether it is to order a pizza or to arrange a vacation.”
An ‘interface-less’ society
Hugh Fletcher, Global Head of Consultancy and Innovation at Salmon said: “With Walmart aligning itself with Google to enter the realm of voice ordering, it is further evidence that we, as an industry and as a society, are moving into an ‘interface-less’ society where shoppers will be making an increased number of purchases made through digital assistants and voice interfaces. As we see these virtual ecosystems grow and become more widespread, we are likely to see a battle commence between the digital assistants such as Google Home, Amazon Echo and Apple HomePod, as retailers and brands affiliate themselves with one or the other. This technology is still in its infancy amongst retailers, but we will inevitably see a long line of them making the same decision as Walmart to offer its customers a voice-controlled service, removing the need for a cumbersome, physical interface and allow consumers to slot digital services into their lives with less disruption.
“Although Walmart will now be promoting its sales through another retailer – Google – it’s a clear paradigm shift, with customers of Walmart accessing its products via Google. One thing that retailers and brands need to be wary of in a world without interfaces, is that consumers will have less exposure to a brand’s personality – the traditional model of visual advertising could very well become obsolete. As a result this could pose a risk to existing customer loyalty and brand equity that they possess with customers. While Walmart is undoubtedly right to get into this space and get in there early, for the sake of its future, we must hope that it has also considered its strategy for customer ownership, data ownership and Walmart brand loyalty, or face becoming a tier two retailer accessed via an interface which isn’t owned by them.”