Christmas Wars: Amazon vs. Wal-Mart

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Every year since 1997 I've tried to do at least some of my Christmas shopping online.

What I have found is that, in general, Amazon ( AMZN) wins my business. This was more true in the past than it will be in the future, as sales taxes are gradually figured into the mix.

But even with my house turned into a store -- sales taxes are typically imposed based on a merchant's location -- I find the search process at Amazon straightforward, the deliveries efficient, the merchandise arriving as advertised.

But over the last few years a new threat to Amazon has emerged -- Walmart ( WMT). Their Vudu operation is one of the largest sellers of online video. The site has an Amazon-like look-and-feel; you can pick things up at the store. They are almost nine times bigger, by sales volume, than Amazon. As the online world grows, they are in it to win it.

With that tale-of-the-tape, I took my dear heart's Christmas list to the Google ( GOOG), focusing on what both these giant merchants can do.

First. If what you want is not in a standard size -- and picture frames are often in non-standard sizes -- the Google will disappoint you . Too many links, and nearly all sponsored links, go to merchants' home pages, not to what you're looking for.

Say you want a picture frame that's one foot high by two feet across. It should be simple, but only one store gets you directly to where you want to go from a Google link -- Amazon.

Wal-Mart's site is especially annoying in this area. Just try searching their "home" section (that's where they keep the frames), specifying a size. You're going to see a lot of merchandise, even a lot of frames, but unless it's a standard size it won't be what you want.

Advantage, Amazon.

Next, we want to honor some deceased relatives with "flag boxes," triangular-shaped cases in which the American flag they were buried under as ex-military can be displayed forever.

Here, Amazon works through re-sellers. They're good people, but their prices are high and shipping costs extra, even if you're paying $79/year for the Amazon "Prime" package.

So instead of doing the search through Google, I went to Google Shopping, and here is what I found.

Advantage, Walmart! They claim to have them in stock, at less than half what Amazon's merchant offers.

So we keep two tabs open, and go through the rest of our list. Books and music are Amazon's meat, but if you're buying for Christmas you have to take physical delivery.

For some reason, the Kindle store won't load your gifts on Christmas Eve -- it's now or never. But as the size of your order grows, you get some interesting "add-in" offers, products from re-sellers with free shipping that only show up after your cart is filled with other stuff.

Walmart had a few other things I wanted, and I thought, let's just order them for pick-up. Two problems. The flag boxes they said were in-stock were only in-stock online, so they'll cost money to ship.

Also, they won't let me go to my favorite Walmart for pick-up of the other items, because that store is technically in another town. That's OK, as it turns out their favored store is actually closer to me than my favored store, by about two miles. Who knew?

I last compared these two merchants a few years ago, for another publisher. Walmart then was miles behind Amazon in all areas. Now the difference is measured in yards. Walmart is getting closer. And the rest of the field is fading away in the distance.

At the time of publication, the author was long GOOG. All purchases described in this story were real.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.