On March 28, Amazon fired a shot in its war with Walmart to define the future of the $600 billion grocery industry. The world’s biggest online retailer announced the beta launch of AmazonFresh Pickup, an on-demand grocery service. With AmazonFresh Pickup, customers can order groceries online and have their orders ready for pick-up at designated AmazonFresh Pickup physical locations — in as little as 15 minutes.
The service is a clear response to Walmart’s limited rollout of Pickup and Fuel concept stores, where customers order online and then drive to Walmart to have their groceries loaded into their cars by employees.
Both businesses are racing to win loyalty from the on-demand consumer.
The rise of the on-demand consumer is one of the compelling trends defining the 21st Century economy. As Google has reported, we’re living in the era of the micro-moment, when consumers, armed with mobile devices and apps, can research and purchase goods and services on their own time and terms. On-demand businesses such as Uber have acted as important catalysts. Uber, for all its flaws, demonstrated the power of responding to mobile consumers with an easy-to-use app that provides a service on demand, and the company has had a profound impact across many industries. Businesses ranging from Panera Bread to 7-Eleven have responded to the on-demand consumer with services such as online ordering and drone delivery.
The grocery industry is well suited to an on-demand model. People need to restock groceries often, and obviously perishable goods have a limited shelf life. But as writer Mark Rogowksy notes in Forbes, the on-demand grocery model has been fraught with its share of failure, one of the reasons being that grocery delivery is not as “on-demand” as it sounds. In fact, it’s a lot easier for mobile consumers to order and pick up groceries on the go rather than wait around in their homes for delivery. Hence, Walmart has been experimenting with the Pickup and Fuel stores. Walmart launched the stores in late 2016 amid speculation that the giant retailer had found a way to battle the ongoing Amazon threat.
At about the same time Walmart began experimenting with Pickup and Fuel, Amazon made headlines with the beta launch of Amazon Go, which consists of physical self-service grocery stores where anyone with an Amazon account, a supported smartphone, and the Amazon Go app can simply take what they want from the store and leave with no check-out required. The flagship Amazon Go store is open exclusively to Amazon employees, and so far the frictionless shopping model has encountered glitches as the in-store technology struggles to keep pace with consumer foot traffic when the Amazon Go store gets busy. Amazon has delayed the launch of a public-ready Amazon Go. But as Amazon has demonstrated with its latest announcement, Amazon has many more cards to play.
Both Amazon and Walmart are in a strong position to lead the on-demand grocery business. They both have brand muscle and deep pockets. Amazon is crushing Walmart (and everyone else) in online retailing, and Amazon is successfully moving into our homes and cars with on-demand devices and technologies such as the Dash button and Alexa voice assistant, which make Amazon a more ubiquitous and convenient presence in our lives, as Google strives to be. Walmart, though, possesses many advantages, including scale and a powerful physical ecosystem that includes not only its stores but network of partners, over whom Walmart wields considerable power.
Walmart also has an uncanny knack to experiment and learn. For example, in 2015 the company launched Walmart Pay to make it possible for shoppers to use their mobile devices to check out and purchase goods, and in 2016, Walmart expanded Walmart Pay across 4,600 stores. Walmart has quickly added services to Walmart Pay that cater to the needs of on-demand consumers, such as the ability for shoppers to refill prescriptions and skip pharmacy lines. Here is a company that understands the intersection of the mobile and physical worlds.
In coming months, Amazon and Walmart will continue to claw their way for leadership. And who will win? The on-demand consumer. With each innovation, Amazon and Walmart are reshaping the grocery industry around the needs of mobile consumers — which is good news for shoppers and the businesses that possess the means to service them on shoppers’ own terms.
Image source: Matthew Kane (https://unsplash.com/@matthewkane)