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Walmart unveils voice-activated, Google-powered grocery shopping

(Bloomberg) --Walmart Inc. will let customers order groceries by voice through Google’s smart-home assistant, an attempt to counter Amazon.com Inc.’s growing clout in e-commerce.

Beginning this month, Walmart shoppers can add items directly to their online shopping carts by saying “Hey Google, talk to Walmart.” Information from prior purchases will help identify the correct brand and size -- like whether you drink 1 percent or skim milk without having to specify, according to Tom Ward, Walmart’s senior vice president of digital operations. In a blog post Tuesday, he said customers can tweak their orders at home or from their smartphone while on the go.

The voice-shopping service comes out of a partnership between the two companies that began in August 2017, one of several alliances Walmart has made in recent years with technology companies including Microsoft Corp., China’s JD.com and Japan’s Rakuten. But the Walmart-Google pairing hasn’t had much to talk about since then, especially after Walmart withdrew from Google’s shopping platform earlier this year.

For Alphabet Inc.’s Google, teaming with the world’s largest retailer could help its digital home assistant bridge the gap with Amazon’s Echo device, commonly known as Alexa. It won’t be easy: Amazon controlled 70 percent of the 66 million smart speaker devices installed in the U.S. as of December, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Google Home had just 24 percent.

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Both Amazon and Google also face the challenge of convincing consumers to order by voice, which is tricky for perishable items like fresh salmon. Only 4 percent of shoppers use voice assistants for grocery planning, according to research from consultant Bain & Co., a fraction of those who own smart speakers. And those who are interested in voice-based grocery shopping already have other options: Rival Kroger Co. has unveiled voice-shopping capabilities through Google.

Google’s home assistant is available on devices including iPhones and JBL portable speakers, Walmart said. The retailer will also expand the service to other platforms in the coming months, it said, a signal that it may be working with Apple Inc. Walmart declined to identify other potential partners.

“We’re kicking off the work with Google, adding others to the mix as time goes on,” Ward said.