There's probably a measure of concern at Amazon.com Inc.'s (AMZN) headquarters about Walmart Stores Inc.'s (WMT) new alliance with Alphabet Inc./Google (GOOGL) . After all, it's a partnership between Amazon's biggest direct rival and -- given Google's importance as a traffic-generator for so many online retailers -- its biggest indirect rival. One that clearly aims to slow Jeff Bezos' company's runaway North American momentum.
But some Amazon execs might be smiling a little too. For Google is also giving up on a paid service that had sought to be an Amazon Prime rival, and by doing so is cementing Prime's monopoly-like U.S. position.
Google and Walmart state that "hundreds of thousands" of Walmart products will be available for purchase by interacting -- whether by text or voice commands -- with the Google Assistant service. Google Assistant, available on Google Home speakers and more importantly gradually rolling out to hundreds of millions of Android phones, will also leverage Walmart's online and in-store shopping data to give customers shopping recommendations and make it easy for them to reorder items, provided they link their Walmart and Google accounts.
Also: Walmart will be joining the Google Express shopping platform, which is already supported by Target Corp. (TGT) , Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST) , Staples Inc. (SPLS) and over two dozen other retailers, and for which Google collects commissions on sales. Simultaneously, Google Express is ditching its $95 annual membership fee. Consumers shopping on the platform, accessible through both Google Assistant and the Express website and apps, are still promised free shipping provided they meet a particular store's order minimum. Orders that don't meet the minimum carry a shipping fee of $4.99 per store.
The Google Assistant part of the tie-up is getting a lot of media attention. Both because of rising interest in voice-based shopping, and because it helps Google Assistant counter the ability of Amazon's Alexa assistant -- found on both Echo devices and a growing array of third-party hardware -- to enable Amazon purchases. Amazon has been actively promoting this feature, even going as far as to offer Prime members a $10 credit for their first Alexa-based order.
Making the inventory of big online retailers accessible via Google Assistant also helps Google address the thorny problem of how to profit from voice queries without irritating users -- unsurprisingly, an early voice ad test for Google Home speakers that involved a Beauty and the Beast promo wasn't well-received. Though financial terms of the Walmart deal haven't been disclosed, Google has previously signaled that it will eventually try to monetize Assistant by taking a cut on enabled transactions.
With all that said, it feels like the hype surrounding voice-based e-commerce is overblown for now. Though potentially effective when a shopper is set on buying a particular item from a particular seller -- admittedly normal activity for many people hooked on Amazon Prime -- it's less convenient when comparing multiple items on a site or comparing the listings of multiple sellers. It's also worth remembering that -- as shown by data from Adobe Systems Inc. (ADBE) and others -- far more U.S. online purchases are still done on PCs than smartphones. Simply having a smaller screen to browse items on is a deterrent for many shoppers. It's safe to assume that many of these shoppers won't be thrilled with the idea of foregoing screen-based browsing altogether in favor of voice commands when they're not sure what to buy or whom to buy from.