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Walmart Same-Day Trial: Can Dec. 24 Be E-tail Windfall?

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Move over in-store mobile integration. It seems that same-day delivery is the coolest retail fad this holiday season, with Walmart this week joining Amazon and eBay (which are doing it) and Macy's (which is seriously considering it), having figured out an impressively low-cost way of doing so.

Walmart's effort is impressive, despite a handful of site hiccups we encountered, including a revolving-door customer service number and price warnings that seem at odds with the chain's pricing policy. The big test will come on December 24. Given the huge financial value placed on every holiday shopping day, it's interesting that many holiday shoppers are forced to give up online shopping after about December 19 or 20, due to shipping delays. Could a robust same-day delivery program make December 24 fully E-Commerce viable? (Have I been known to drive to the mall at 11:00 PM on December 24 for a last-minute forgotten gift? No comment.)

It's not clear for this year's trials what the Christmas Eve policies will be for any of these retailers, but the fiscal potential for future years is definite.

Walmart's approach fits squarely in between the approach being trialed by Amazon, which is only available to customers paying extra for Amazon Prime service, and the methods being tested by eBay, where each delivery will cost shoppers $5 after they use three fully free deliveries.

The key questions of any same-day delivery are: "How early must I place an order for same-day delivery?" "How quickly will it get here?" "At what cost?" "What types of product limitations are there?" The three early players have all taken very different routes on all these issues.

  • How Early Must The Order Be Placed?
    Amazon has been the most strict, insisting that same-day orders in two of its test cities must be placed by 7:00 AM local time. Walmart's cutoff is a much more leisurely noon local time for each of its four test metro regions: Philadelphia, Minneapolis, northern Virginia and a chunk of northern California from San Jose to San Francisco. eBay's approach doesn't have a concrete cutoff time, because couriers are dispatched throughout the day.
  • How Much Will It Cost?
    Amazon's price starts with shoppers having to pay $79 per year to join Amazon Prime, and it then charges $8.99 for same-day delivery (a giftcard costs only $3.99). eBay has various incentive discounts, but it then settled on $5 each. Walmart is charging a flat $10.
  • How Quickly Will This Same-Day Delivery Arrive?
    To be precise, we have no field testing of how long these services are actually taking to do deliveries, so the comparisons are merely based on the program claims. Amazon isn't promising delivery until 8:00 PM. eBay is promising one hour after the order is placed (to be handled by courier). Walmart is promising a four-hour window, at the customer's choice, with the earliest window being 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM. In effect, that means its promise is the same as Amazon's: 8:00 PM. Walmart's deliveries are all being handled by UPS.
  • Eligible Product Limitations?
    This is a much more difficult comparison, given the different ways the initial players have structured their programs. Walmart has released a clean figure: 5,000 of what it considers its most popular items in electronics, music, toys, movies and books. Not coincidentally, this campaign is intended for the holidays, so these are the most gift-oriented items. (A different Walmart same-day delivery that's been done in California focused on grocery.) The eBay and Amazon programs are more dependent on what retail and consumer goods partners are pushing.
  • The newness of the Walmart trial (it just started last week in Philly, Virginia and Minneapolis, while California isn't slated to start until early November, said Walmart spokesperson Ashley Hardie) is showing itself with a few site issues that could use more thinking through.

    When placing an order, the site tells shoppers—without explanation—that the "final cost is determined at the time your items are packed. If you change your delivery time, your prices may change as well."

    Given that Walmart said the $10 flat-fee shipping is without exception and that prices are the same as on the site, it's a perplexing utterance.

    One customer service representative said he was also confused by the wording, as the pricing is indeed final long before the items are packed. The "change your delivery time" and "your prices may change" part, though, the rep said, was illustrative of "system limitations."

    The system, he explained, doesn't have to deliver things same day, and some shoppers may ask for a product to be delivered weeks later. The price will remain locked, he said, unless the user changes something—even something as minor as changing a preferred 4:00 PM–8:00 PM delivery window to a 6:00 PM:ndash;10:00 PM window. Let's say that the product's price increased after the order was placed. As soon as anything in the order changes, the system loses whatever price locks it had and simply grabs the current price. That still doesn't explain the "at the time your items are packed" reference, but at least it addresses the second sentence.

    Speaking of customer service, that's another part of the site that could be cleaned up a bit. The Walmart same-day shipping site—a.k.a. Walmart ToGo—invites shoppers with questions about the service to call an toll-free 800 customer service number. This is the site telling shoppers with questions to call that number. But the outgoing message tells customers with questions about the program to push 1. If they do that, though, it's simply a recording telling them that questions can be answered on the Web site. And it then hangs up.

    There is a trick to it, though. If the shopper with questions simply ignores the prompt and selects 2, which is only supposed to be for shoppers with questions about an active order, the shopper will be connected with a customer service rep. (And, from our experience, some really good ones, who are able to answer those questions.)

    The site has items that are confusing but more understandable. A box shows the minimum required amount for an order, even though this trial has no such limit. It's there because the existing grocery trial does have a minimum dollar limit, Walmart's Hardie said.