Take that Alexa! Wal-Mart partners with Google to offer voice shopping

Wal-Mart is about to encroach even further on to Amazon‘s turf.

The big-box retailer will soon offer customers the ability to order hundreds of thousands of its products by voice with the help of Google.

The partnership is another critical step as Wal-Mart looks to advance its e-commerce operations, staying competitive with Amazon and its powerful voice-enabled network Alexa.

While other retailers are already working with Google to sell their products using Google Express — including Target, Costco, Whole Foods, Ulta and Kohl’s — none of these companies thus far has allowed shoppers to link up a pre-existing user account with Google Express on the back end.

Wal-Mart also will be offering the largest number of items through the Express platform.

Beginning in September, Wal-Mart shoppers can link their Wal-Mart accounts to Google Express and quickly order — either through voice on Google Home or by shopping on Google Express. By linking a shopper’s past Wal-Mart purchase history, Google will be able to more quickly learn the customer’s shopping patterns and recommend suitable products.

Using the platform now, a customer can say, “Google, buy peanut butter.” Google will then suggest the brand it thinks the customer would like the most.

But Google is just guessing, explained Brian Elliott, general manager of Google Express. He told CNBC that the process of going back and forth, asking if a customer wants this or that, can be clunky.

Once the partnership with Wal-Mart launches, however, Google can scan the customer’s purchase history, and respond: “I know you bought Skippy, 16-ounce, from Wal-Mart last month. It’s $7.99. Do you want that?”

That’s the power of this combination. While other retailers are on the Express platform, Wal-Mart will be the first with this capability.

“It makes sense for us to team up with Google,” Wal-Mart’s head of e-commerce, Marc Lore, said in a blog post. “They’ve made significant investments in natural language processing and artificial intelligence to deliver a powerful voice shopping experience.”

“We know this means being compared side-by-side with other retailers, and we think that’s the way it should be,” Lore added. “An open and transparent shopping universe is good for customers.”

As of Wednesday, Google also began offering free delivery on Google Express orders so long as the order is above each retailer’s minimum threshold. Wal-Mart, for example, will have a threshold of $35 for free delivery when its deal is live.

“We’re thrilled to partner with one of the most popular stores in America to help make your shopping faster and easier,” said Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google’s senior vice president of ads and commerce.

And with Google’s platform, no membership is required, Ramaswamy pointed out.

An ongoing battle

With more consumers beginning to rely on devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, it’s easy to see why retailers want to stay on top of the trend. Amazon had a leg up with its integrated system, but Wal-Mart doesn’t plan on being left behind.

Wal-Mart, with its brick-and-mortar fleet, and Amazon, with its e-commerce operations, have been neck and neck as far as the retail world is concerned, each company rolling out fresh initiatives to stay ahead of the other.

Wal-Mart acquired Jet.com last fall, beefing up its digital arm. Post-Jet merger, the retailer grew online sales 60 percent during the second quarter of 2017, following 63 percent growth in the first quarter of the year.

For now, Jet’s products, which include those sold by Modcloth and Bonobos, won’t be available through Google Express.

Meantime, Amazon is looking to grow its real estate portfolio, preparing to seal a deal to acquire Whole Foods. The grocer’s shareholders vote on the deal on Wednesday.

Come September, Wla-Mart and Amazon will offer consumers the ability to order a catalog of products through voice shopping. “This is just the beginning,” Lore has said.

“Next year, we will also leverage our 4,700 U.S. stores and our fulfillment network to create customer experiences that don’t currently exist within voice shopping anywhere else,” Lore wrote in his Wednesday blog post.

This will include using voice command to pick up orders in store and using voice shopping to purchase fresh groceries, he said.

Separately, Wal-Mart also has been testing a pilot delivery service with Uber, which expanded to additional cities this week.

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