April 23, 2021 at 04:00PM

With nearly $2 trillion in combined market value and over $800 billion in sales between them, not a week goes by in which Amazon and Walmart aren’t vying to gain the upper hand by launching new ways to meet the ever-changing needs of consumers around the world — and the past seven days have been no exception.

In this version of what was formerly The Whole Paycheck Tracker, we roll out the rebranded AMZN vs. WMT Weekly. This week, we delve into details of the two retail titans squaring off on several new fronts within a lingering and changing pandemic environment, each offering new services and deploying new technology aimed at attracting and retaining customers.

With the top two merchants essentially tied at roughly a 9 percent share of the total U.S. retail sales pie — and both coming off of record years — there has never been a better time to differentiate and distinguish themselves in the eyes of consumers.

Preparing for COVID Phase IV

In just 13 months, the country and its two largest retailers have gone through an unprecedented string of pandemic-related changes, from lockdown to rebound to the rollout of the vaccine — and hopefully, we will soon see phase four: the roaring 20s fiesta.

Although Walmart’s unmatched domestic physical store presence didn’t help it during the initial shutdown, it didn’t take long before the retailer retooled those very same locations into a major component in fulfilling the grocery and general merchandise needs of cooped-up and cautious American consumers.

Although the one-year anniversary of COVID has come and gone, the adaptations continue. Just this week, alongside its existing 5,100 vaccine locations and 500 testing sites, Walmart announced a “Testing Remains Important” campaign that includes the sale of a new in-home rapid COVID test that delivers results in about 15 minutes and only costs about $20. 

“From the day we were first asked and it was apparent testing was a key element in the fight to combat the pandemic, our goal was to help provide increased access to testing in our communities. We continue to find innovative ways to do just that, and this is just one more way we continue to play a role in the health of our communities,” Julie Barber, SVP of health and wellness merchandising at Walmart U.S., said in the blog post.

For its part, Amazon has been running pop-up vaccination clinics in a few states, while also making efforts to get the shot for as many of its one million employees as possible. And just this week, the retailer retooled its voice-activated virtual assistant Alexa to find nearby vaccination sites.

While offering vaccines, COVID tests and kits may not be big revenue drivers right now, to paraphrase the words of Fetch Rewards CEO Wed Schroll, they are big loyalty drivers that consumers will remember after the pandemic is over — and doing the right thing in the eyes of customers is more important than ever.

The Power of People

With both Amazon and Walmart in the super-elite one-million-plus employee headcount category, few companies know the power and economics of people better than these two retailers.  

On that front, Walmart made a move for mankind this week that will accelerate the deactivation of what The Wall Street Journal described as 1,500 “hulking automated pickup towers” that stand 17 feet tall. In their place, the big-box store chain is doubling down on its popular curbside pickup service, an innovation that is not only less than a year old, but is also staffed by real people.

Speaking of real-life humans, there are still certain tasks that are better suited to people than robotics — and assembling flat-pack items is one of them. While Amazon for years has offered an array of home services ranging from home theater setup to furniture and outdoor equipment assembly, it is now testing an even faster premium assembly service in a handful of markets. The new service would require delivery drivers to carry the box to the designated room, unpack the pieces, assemble the item and remove all of the packaging materials. If a customer was unhappy with the piece, the driver would take the product back.

As much as both companies have invested heavily in automation, especially in their warehouses and backrooms, this week’s moves underscore the importance that people still play in the success of both companies.

Hair and Hot Dogs

Another new service venture unveiled this week was Amazon Salon, a London-based hairstyling studio that doubles as a showroom for new hair products, offering high-tech imagery like augmented reality virtual hair color testing as well as in-shop personal entertainment via the company’s Fire tablets.

While the actual hair cutting and styling has been outsourced to an existing professional hairstylist, the rest of this one-of-a-kind digital salon is all Amazon — and if history is any predictor, it will not likely be the last.

As Amazon was dipping its enormous toe into the hair care sector, Walmart was busy shoring up its new roster of in-store restaurants in the wake of McDonald’s decision to accelerate its exit from the retailer’s lobbies in favor of higher-producing locations that enable drive-thrus.

Although many of those burger destinations will remain open and under lease for many more months, Nathan’s Famous hotdogs and Vancouver-based Ghost Kitchen announced a partnership this week that will put 100 “non-traditional eateries” in Walmart stores in the U.S. and Canada in the coming months.

As for the “no drive-thru” problem that saw the previous tenant pull out after 30 years, the new occupants said many of these new in-store kitchens will offer some seating, but all of the locations included in the deal will offer carry-out and third-party delivery.

AMZN vs. WMT Weekly: Top Retailers Try New Ways To Woo Customers …

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