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The Wall Street Journal has a story about Jetblack, the personal shopping service owned by Walmart, targeted at moms who had to be invited to become members, and currently being tested in New York City.

Jetblack exists as a rejoinder to the success of Amazon Prime, a service so successful and pervasive that more than half the nation’s households are expected hold memberships by the end of this year (paying $129 annually for the privilege). But Jetblack isn’t just a me-too initiative, but one that is designed to leapfrog where Amazon is now, if everything works. It also isn’t being positioned as a retailer, but rather as a personal shopping service.

The Journal writes, “A few hundred shoppers in New York City pay $600 a year to order anything by text message except for fresh food. Members were invited by Walmart, or referred by current members, and need to have a doorman to join.

“Their orders go to Jetblack headquarters where dozens of agents sit at computers and field requests, from reordering diapers to making suggestions on high-end cribs, organic snacks and yoga attire. Couriers fetch the items and bring them back to a Manhattan delivery hub, where they are wrapped in black packaging and hand delivered, usually the same day.

“It’s a labor-intensive operation that loses money. But making money isn’t the goal, at least not right away.”

The Journal goes on: “Walmart executives are betting the upstart becomes a powerful weapon in an escalating technological ground war with Amazon.com Inc., as the two companies battle over shoppers who are increasingly making all sorts of purchases online … Walmart is using Jetblack’s army of human agents to train an artificial intelligence system that could someday power an automated personal-shopping service, preparing Walmart for a time when the search bar disappears and more shopping is done through voice-activated devices, said Jetblack CEO Jenny Fleiss.”

Jetblack is said to be a passion of Marc Lore, the head of Walmart’s U.S. e-commerce business who jumpstarted Walmart’s e-commerce business when he sold it Jet, a startup he launched to compete with Amazon.

While Jetblack isn’t showing all its cards, the Journal reports that “Jetblack members are spending an average of $300 a week for products because the ease of the service encourages more frequent purchases,” that “the average shopper is buying more than 10 items a week,” and that “average spending a week is higher than last September.”

The story makes the point that Jetblack doesn’t just deliver products stocked at Walmart or Jet; it will go elsewhere to source desired items, including, ironically, Amazon.
KC's View:
I’m a little skeptical - but only a little - about Jetblack’s ability to leapfrog Amazon Prime, simply because it presumes that Amazon’s offering is stagnant, and not growing in ways that Amazon perceives are relevant to its shoppers.

But I do think that it is interesting that Walmart is keying this to work with voice activated devices. I think that’s smart. But I wonder if this foretells some sort of deepening relationship with a company like Google, which has its own voice system that competes with Amazon’s Alexa-based system.

When I say I’m only a “little” skeptical, that’s mostly because I’ve learned that even the stuff that I don’t think will have legs can, in the end, be successful. I’m not sure how broad the market is for a personal shopping service that costs more than three times as much as Amazon Prime membership, but I also think it bears watching as it evolves, learning to walk before it runs.