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Would you grocery shop by talking to a smart assistant?

Walmart and Google first announced their voice-shopping partnership in August 2017, but it’s only now that the partnership has expanded and evolved to compete directly with Amazon’s Whole Foods voice-ordering feature.

It’s Walmart and Google vs. Amazon and Whole Foods for the future of voice shopping.

In a truly beautiful 21st century Mad Lib, it was announced Tuesday that Google Assistant can now respond to the command, “Hey Google, talk to Walmart.”

Walmart’s partnership with the tech giant has expanded, allowing customers to add items directly to their grocery shopping carts by talking. “Best of all,” Tom Ward, Walmart’s head of digital operations, explained in a company blog post, “customers can be extra confident that we can quickly and accurately identify the items they are asking for with the help of information from their prior purchases with us. The more you use it, the better we’ll get.” So if you typically buy “1 percent Great Value organic milk,” after a couple of uses you won’t need to say that to Google. It will know. You can just say “milk.”

The post also highlights Google’s status as the owner of the most widely used voice assistant. Though Amazon has an edge in the smart speaker market — close to 65 percent of smart speakers use Alexa, as opposed to about 20 percent that use Google Assistant — Google Assistant has the advantage of being on about a billion Android phones. “Customers can manage their shopping carts while they’re at home or on the go,” Ward says.

“Hey Google, talk to Walmart”

Walmart and Google first announced their voice-shopping partnership in August 2017, but it’s only now that the partnership has expanded and evolved to compete directly with Amazon’s Whole Foods voice-ordering feature.

Amazon added Whole Foods voice shopping to Alexa in August 2018. It launched with essentially the same pitch as Google-Walmart voice shopping, and also promised to remember what type of milk you like. However, access to this feature is still only for Amazon Prime members who live in Prime Now service areas, and near a Whole Foods, and who want to shop for groceries at a Whole Foods, where prices have recently fluctuated by the week.

Where Amazon is targeting affluent urban centers, Google is leaning fully into the broad, big-box demographic. Last April, the company partnered with Target to experiment with voice-activated coupons. This required people to address their Google Assistants by saying “Spring in to Target,” and the experiment hasn’t been repeated, possibly because it would be mortifying to say “Spring in to Target” to a robot. But it’s an example of Amazon’s bigger problem when it comes to voice shopping: Amazon, as an enormous and ever-growing retailer, is a huge competitor for most retailers that it doesn’t outright own. To any store that sells any product that can also be purchased on Amazon, partnering with Google will look like a better deal. Walmart wouldn’t even use Amazon’s data-computing and cloud services — despite the fact that it offers the most robust and powerful ones in the world — and instead signed a five-year deal with Microsoft last summer.

“Not even 1 percent of Americans said they would rather shop on a smart speaker”

Google’s assistant is also the smartest and messes up the least. In the race to be the go-to personal shopper voice assistant, Google might not even need to sprint.

Still, as Recode’s Rani Molla pointed out last November, it’s been difficult for any of these companies to convince people they ought to do their grocery shopping with a smart assistant intermediary. “Most surveys show that only around 20 percent of smart speaker users have ever used their device to make a purchase. The number that shop monthly is half that,” Molla wrote. “The majority of people still prefer to shop at physical stores, according to a May survey by Voicebot. Not even 1 percent of Americans said they would rather shop on a smart speaker.”

For now, America’s largest retailer is spending a lot of money on tech expansions to bring people features they don’t want or need. But eventually, we can assume, the combined forces of all the biggest companies in the country will convince us.

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About Aaron Rupar

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