May 14, 2019 11:15 AM, EDT

Walmart Matches Amazon With Free One-Day Shipping on Many Items

Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg News

Walmart Inc. wants to one-up in the fight for online shoppers.

The world’s largest retailer is rolling out a next-day delivery service to counter Amazon’s recent move to speed shipment times for top customers to just one day from two.

Starting May 14, Walmart customers in Phoenix and Las Vegas who buy more than $35 worth of goods will get free one-day shipping. The offer, which Walmart had hinted was in the works and will be applied to as many as 220,000 items, will extend to Southern California in the coming days and will reach about three-quarters of the United States by the end of the year.

Unlike Amazon, which will spend $800 million this quarter to reduce delivery times, Walmart said its shift will cost the company less, since the items typically will come in just one box from a single warehouse that is closest to the customer. Keeping a tight lid on expenses is paramount for Walmart, whose domestic e-commerce business isn’t profitable. The operation is forecast to lose more this year than it did in 2018.

“Anytime someone shops next-day, it is guaranteed to cost us a lot less to ship,” said Marc Lore, Walmart’s U.S. e-commerce chief. “We are not paying the carriers any more. That’s in contrast to online orders that come in multiple boxes from multiple locations, which can be quite costly.”

Lore declined to say whether the expected savings could help the online business get out of the red faster. Walmart is scheduled to report first-quarter results May 16.

The next-day shipping applies to a broad range of merchandise — up to twice the number of items found in a typical Walmart supercenter — and includes Bounty paper towels, Gentle Giants dog food and store-branded diapers. Unlike Amazon’s one-day delivery, which is available for its Prime customers who pay an annual fee of $119, Walmart’s service will be available for most shoppers without a membership fee.

Walmart’s goal of reaching three quarters of the United States would put it on par with Amazon, which can deliver at least next-day service to 72% of the U.S. population, according to a March note from RBC Capital Markets.

Walmart’s main website will feature a button that lets shoppers enter a separate page displaying the items eligible for the service. Everything in the cart must be eligible for next-day delivery to qualify. The offer doesn’t apply to fresh and frozen food, which is operated separately.

Walmart will rely on its network of national and regional transportation companies to handle deliveries. Lore estimates that about half of all online orders automatically will qualify for next-day shipping, as the items eligible are those most commonly purchased.

Sucharita Kodali, an analyst at Forrester Research, said the success of the project will hinge on the selection being offered.

“The question is, how many people will want those items?” Kodali said by phone. “Is it a compelling enough assortment? If it is, that becomes attractive for shoppers, especially higher-income shoppers who don’t normally shop at Walmart.”

Walmart has plowed billions into its e-commerce business to carve out a piece of the market where Amazon rakes in almost 50 cents of every dollar spent online. It has acquired new brands, revamped its website and built massive new distribution centers, such as the 1.2 million-square-foot facility in Chino, Calif., that will be the first one employed for next-day shipments. The company wants to persuade more of its in-store shoppers to buy online, because when they do, they spend more than twice as much with the retailer.

“It’s an arms race,” Kodali said.

Lore said the timing of the move wasn’t influenced by Amazon’s April announcement.

“We’ve been working on this since I got here a couple years ago,” he said.

Walmart began offering two-day shipping on orders of at least $35 at the end of January 2017, not long after it paid $3.3 billion for Lore’s e-commerce startup

That move, along with the addition of millions of items and other enhancements, has helped Walmart post online revenue growth of more than 40% for the past three quarters. At an investor meeting last year, Lore told analysts that the company was “well-positioned to dial up the delivery speed next year” and claimed that the company could reach 87% of the country with overnight ground delivery through its existing warehouses.