Amazon on Wednesday launched its Black Friday deals, including free shipping on more than 100 million items for Prime members and non-Prime customers making purchases of $25 or more (notably, a lower holiday free shipping threshold than rival Walmart). Some toys are already marked down up to 30%, including hot items like Baby Alive Sweet Tears, Dropmix and Tickle Me Elmo, according to a company press release.
The e-commerce giant is encouraging its Prime members to shop with the Alexa voice assistant, which is an option on its mobile app and in its many devices. Other nifty tech includes the Amazon App's "Package X-Ray feature," which can scan the label barcode and see what's inside, (allowing customers to wrap gifts without opening the box or spoiling the surprise), and an augmented reality feature that shows customers how items look in the home, the company said.
Amazon has sought to curate its massive assortment through a series of gift guides, broken down into categories like toys, home and electronics, Handmade at Amazon, Black Friday deals, "interesting finds" and a newly redesigned "Gift Finder" that allows discovery by holiday, gender or age.
The run-down of Amazon's holiday deals and opportunities is much like the list of accomplishments the company includes with its earnings reports: a litany of delivery options and technology features that underscores the company's ambitious and fearless approach to retail. Of course, much of its courage derives from the protection served up by its AWS cloud services unit, which provides revenues that cushion both the high cost of its investments and the thin margins of its retail enterprise.
Among Amazon's most promising sales features this year is Alexa, which Prime members can activate by saying, "Alexa, order [something]." The bot will then find a top-rated product that ships with Prime. Some 35.6 million Americans will use a voice-activated assistant device at least once a month this year, according to research released in May from eMarketer. If that forecast proves correct, it would be a 129% jump in voice engagement with virtual assistants over last year.
Alexa so far is edging out Google when it comes to market share in the voice assistant space, but the fight is on. Amazon devices like the Echo and Dot speakers, along with apps in mobile devices, could provide some $10 billion in revenue by 2020 and be a "mega-hit," according to a note published this spring by investment bank RBC Capital Markets, though Google has been working hard to add features that Alexa doesn't have.
The fire will only be fueled by the holiday season, according to Luke Starbuck, VP of Marketing at customer care automation platform Linc. A huge majority (87%) of retailers expect to be using AI for customer service and engagement within the next 24 months, while 41% are using it or experimenting with it already, according to Linc's research.
"This increasing popularity, coupled with retailers' desire to partner with voice platforms, will continue to snowball until voice platforms are the norm and an essential asset for any brand,” Starbuck told Retail Dive in a September email. "Especially following the announcement of Walmart's partnership with Google Home just a few weeks ago, [Home Depot's] latest move indicates that there will be an ongoing battle for market control between Amazon Alexa and Google Home, especially as we head into the 2017 holiday sales season."
The company touted its new Amazon Key service, allowing eligible packages to be securely delivered inside homes without having to be there, which, starting Nov. 8, will be available to Prime members. Except for the $25 free shipping threshold announced Wednesday (down from $35), most of its overall shipping policies — free shipping offers from the millions selling on its Marketplace, plus for Prime members, free one-day shipping and free same-day delivery on orders of $35 in some areas, plus the usual two-day Prime shipping on many items — remain unchanged for the holidays. In more than 50 U.S. cities, Amazon Lockers near offices, major convenience stores, grocery stores, apartment buildings and malls across the country provide pick-up stations, Amazon said.
While Amazon has been tearing up retail with its fulfillment and delivery prowess and its dominant marketplace (the source of half the goods sold on its site), it hasn't always been all that fun or easy to navigate. While consumers turn to it to search for products more than they seek out Google, Amazon is still working on improvements: The company worked on that this year during its Prime Day event, making its site more discovery-oriented, and that continues into the holidays.