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Walmart, Amazon vie for holiday advantage

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The holiday selling season has arrived, and it promises to be a memorable one for several reasons. A decade after the financial crisis that triggered the Great Recession, the U.S. economy has finally stabilized, with low unemployment and strong growth. Those conditions have led retail industry watchers to predict solid sales increases over the next six weeks. The results of a consumer survey recently released by the National Retail Federation, for instance, show that Americans plan to spend 3.4% more during the holidays than they did a year ago.

Another development of significance is the continuing shift among shoppers from brick-and-mortar stores to e-commerce. Its annual holiday survey of consumers prompted Deloitte to project that online holiday spending will eclipse that in traditional retail outlets for the first time. Any merchant unprepared to adapt to the change in shopping patterns is certain to see its business erode.

Against that backdrop, intense competition between retail titans Walmart and Amazon should punctuate the holiday selling season. Battle lines have been drawn, and both companies are going all out to win the allegiance of shoppers.

Building on its commitment to saving customers time and money, Walmart has initiated a multipronged attack, encompassing its 4,700 stores in the U.S. and its e-commerce platform. Dubbed “Rock This Christmas,” the holiday program includes an expanded merchandise mix featuring suppliers new to the retailer (among them Cuisinart, KitchenAid and Bose); free two-day shipping without a membership fee on orders of more than $35; such time-saving services as Online Grocery Pickup and Pickup Today; and the presence of “holiday helpers” to assist customers.

The in-store experience at Walmart Supercenters will be further enhanced by more than 20,000 parties under three themes — “Toys That Rock,” “Parties That Rock” and “Gifts That Rock.” Those events, together with 165,000 product demonstrations where customers can test and taste items before making a purchase decision, are among the elements that can help make brick-and-mortar stores a destination for consumers in the face of mounting challenge from digital alternatives.

Amazon has adopted an equally aggressive stance, opening its online Black Friday Deals Store at the beginning of November. On the store’s first day, customers could save up to 30% on popular toys; similar daily discounts on a broad range of merchandise were promised up through the holidays. In addition, the company called attention to a number of technological enhancements designed to facilitate the consumer experience, including voice-activated shopping and an augmented reality feature within the Amazon app.

The company, which owns a handful or brick-and-mortar book stores and the Whole Foods supermarket chain, is making a further foray into the non-digital realm with Treasure Trucks in 25 cities. Customers can choose to receive notifications on the Amazon app to access special offers from the Treasure Truck. The program is another example of the retailer’s recognition that its business will benefit from innovative ways to engage consumers in the real word as well as online.

Walmart and Amazon understand that in today’s marketplace shoppers are in the driver’s seat. The rivalry between the two companies to satisfy their customers no matter when, where or how they choose to shop will make them both better and put pressure on other retailers to raise the level of their omnichannel capabilities.


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