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Walmart’s latest tool for ordering groceries: Google assistant

Voice commands are becoming an increasingly popular way to shop for food, experts say.

(Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

Walmart customers in need of groceries have had two options in recent years: Go to the store and fill up a shopping cart by hand; or select food items online and have them delivered to their home or picked up in person.

Now, the big box retailer has unveiled a third way to order groceries: via voice command.

Beginning this month, customers who own a Google assistant can say, “Hey, Google, talk to Walmart” to add items to a virtual grocery cart, Tom Ward, senior vice president, Digital Operations, Walmart U.S., said in a statement Tuesday. The voice commands allow customers to add items to their cart one at a time over a few days — not necessarily to complete their shopping for the week all at once.

As the technology becomes more familiar with customers’ shopping habits, Ward said, it will improve over time.

“For example, if a customer says ‘add milk to my cart,’ we’ll make sure to add the specific milk the customer buys regularly,” Ward said. “Instead of saying ‘One gallon of 1 percent Great Value organic milk,’ they’ll simply say one word: ‘milk.’ ”

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Walmart has been investing heavily in food sales in recent years. The company has begun selling organic produce, as well as creating “designer" fruits that offer particular flavors year round. Food sales make up more than half of Walmart’s revenue, nearly $200 billion worth of groceries each year, experts say.

With the introduction of voice assistants, Walmart Voice Order joins Amazon-owned Whole Foods, which partnered with Amazon’s Echo last year so that customers can shop using voice commands. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Walmart’s new service is available only in locations that offer store pickup (2,100 locations) and delivery (800 locations). Citing estimates from the research firm Cowen, CNN reported that about 13 percent of Walmart shoppers take advantage of curbside pickup.

Marcel Hollerbach, the chief marketing officer of the software company Productsup, pointed to a recent study showing that voice services are increasingly popular, but more consumers use them to create shopping lists than order products.

“Walmart’s new voice-enabled shopping strategy is smart because it focuses on cart replenishment instead of completing a purchase, which aligns with how consumers want to use voice today," Hollerbach said. “The reality is consumers just aren’t ready for voice purchasing.”

“That said, the key for brands today is to build a deeper brand connection with consumers by finding useful ways to weave voice capabilities into their daily lives,” he added. "That way when the consumer is ready to leverage it as a purchasing channel, they’ll already trust the brand will provide them the experiences they want.”

This start-up is launching a remote-controlled ‘grocery store on wheels'

Seeking to improve the shopping experience of busy customers, grocery chains continue to experiment with new technologies designed to enhance convenience. In December, Kroger — the nation’s largest grocery chain — announced that customers could have their groceries delivered by an autonomous vehicle with a design inspired by a Formula One racing helmet.

This year, Robomart — a Santa Clara, Calif.-based start-up — announced plans to unleash an on-demand, remote-controlled “grocery store on wheels” that would allow customers to shop for groceries in front of their homes. In January, Robomart founder and chief executive Ali Ahmed told The Washington Post that he hopes to partner with other retailers that would lease its vehicles and brand them as their own, creating self-driving grocery fleets.

To keep up with autonomous delivery vehicles and voice assistant shopping, Walmart has no choice but to “jump on the voice train to compete effectively,” according to Paul Michelotti, the Experience management practice lead at the digital marketing company Avionos.

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Though Walmart has had an established grocery presence much longer than Amazon, Amazon has innovated by adding tools like Amazon Go and Alexa ordering that simplify the grocery shopping experience, Michelotti said.

“The addition of voice ordering to Walmart’s grocery strategy will allow it to better meet consumer needs and compete both with Amazon and legacy grocers who have yet to add this type of technology into the customer experience,” he added. "However, regardless of competitors, it’s crucial that Walmart continuously monitor how its own customers interact with the tech and gather feedback over time. Voice functionality is only beneficial if customers actually want to interact with it.”

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