Business

Walmart partners with Google on voice-activated shopping

Program will allow consumers to order Walmart products via Google-powered smart speakers and cellphones

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Google and Walmart are teaming up to take on a common enemy: Amazon. (Eric Risberg, Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

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Walmart and Google are teaming up against a common enemy: Amazon's dominance in voice-activated shopping.

The world's largest retailer said Wednesday it's working with Google to offer hundreds of thousands of items that consumers can order by talking to their Google Assistant via a smart speaker or other Android-powered mobile device such as a smartphone.

Under the plan, Walmart will make available thousands of its products with Google Express, the search giant's e-commerce platform. 

As of next month, any U.S. residents with a Google Home smart speaker or who are a Google Express customer via the website or app will be able to order a wide selection of Walmart products and have them shipped quickly and free of charge to either their home, or in some cases a nearby Walmart.

The system will be smart enough to buy specific brands of items consumers have purchased before without too much added effort. "If you order Tide ... or Gatorade," Google said of the service, "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."

"This will enable us to deliver highly personalized shopping recommendations based on customers' previous purchases, including those made in Walmart stores and on Walmart.com," said Marc Lore, president and CEO of Walmart's e-commerce unit.

The collaboration won't be available in Canada at first, but that may change if it's deemed a success in the U.S. and if Google Home speakers get any traction in the Canadian marketplace.

Fight for consumer loyalty

The Google Express market already works with other retailers, but the link-up with Walmart is a major step as Google tries to fight back against Amazon's dominance in leveraging its online dominance into controlling how and what we buy in the real world.

Amazon's Alexa-powered Echo device has a similar feature where consumers can order millions of products simply by speaking to it. Amazon has a leg up in the space not only because it was first to market the idea of using virtual assistants to help users buy things, but because it is starting to own its own line of Amazon products, known as Amazon Basics, and can push consumers to order its products instead of name brands and therefore control all parts of the transaction.

"Considering the data they have built up about their customers," said Neil Bearse, director of marketing at Smith School of Business at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., in an interview, "it's a tough head start to catch up with."

Both Google and Walmart haven't been key players in the space, which is why they are teaming up now to fight a common enemy before it's too late, Bearse said.

"This isn't about how we buy things today — it's more a play for the future," Bearse said.

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Google is partnering with Walmart to allow customers to order thousands of products from Walmart via their smartphones or other Google devices such as the home speaker. (Walmart)

While technology companies have big plans for the devices, thus far consumers mainly use them for simple tasks such as playing music, looking up things online, or making phone calls.

"We're still in early days, but shopping isn't yet one of the big uses of the devices," Victoria Petrock, principal analyst at research firm eMarketer, said. "Obstacles to people using the devices to shop are cost and privacy. A little more than six in 10 people are concerned that these virtual assistants are spying on them."

Once untouchable in retail, Walmart is currently fighting a two-front war against conventional retail rivals, but also Amazon, which has encroached on the company's dominance in buying basic household goods.

Amazon is taking the fight to Walmart's front door by trying to take over bricks and mortar grocery store Whole Foods recently, and the partnership with Google in the digital space is another front in the all out war for consumer dollars.

"They're going head to head," Bearse said, "physically and digitally."

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