With Amazon’s patent count rising again last year, it’s clear the company’s “build it” strategy is largely meant to out-invent, rather than outbid, the next big idea. Amazon received 1,963 patents in 2017 according to the latest data released by the IFI Claims office, and holds more patents than any other retailer in the industry (7,096). In fact, at $22.6 billion, Amazon spent more in R&D than any other U.S. company last year (up 41 percent from 2016), topping Microsoft, Intel, Facebook and even Apple according to a recent story in Recode.
Amazon has a deep history of effectively chasing patents, which stems from lessons learned in the dot-com era. For example, Amazon’s patent for one-click shopping was issued in 1999 and set the norm for the entire retail industry.
Fast forward nearly twenty years. Today we have Amazon Prime and Amazon Marketplace, and the company is still three steps ahead, inventing what is possible by both shaping and anticipating the needs of consumers. According to a recent CNBC article, Amazon was issued patents last year for augmented reality mirrors that would enable users to try on clothes virtually by projecting different outfits onto the user. They’ve also patented a “smart” sensor-studded package delivery air vehicle, an option that would mute the Amazon Echo’s video mode for user privacy and even one that would detect hacked self-driving cars.
According to a TechCrunch story late last year, the company considers acquisition core to its innovation model, particularly in the technology, retail and digital native brands categories. Marc Lore, CEO of Walmart WMT -2.15% eCommerce U.S, who founded Jet.com (bought by Walmart WMT -2.15% in 2016), noted in recent comments that in Walmart’s view, “specialist positioning is better than mass,” and that the acquisition spree will continue. Recent acquisitions include ShoeBuy, Moosejaw, Bonobos, Parcel, Hayneedle and ModCloth.
Walmart has also started its own incubator, Store No. 8, which aims to “nurture startup businesses,” allowing them to run just like other startups but be “ring-fenced by the rest of the organization and backed by the largest retailer in the world,” according to Lore.
Additionally, Walmart’s research arm, Walmart Labs, invests in businesses much like a VC and provides entrepreneurs with additional capital. The Walmart Labs website features investments in picking optimization, crowdsource delivery, mobility apps and in-store robotics as examples, and recently purchased Spatialand, a virtual/augmented-reality company with an eye on improving the in-store shopping experience.
Further, with nearly 400 Walmart Labs job openings according to recent news, including data scientists, cloud computing engineers and streaming data engineers, it’s clear that Walmart is throwing a lot of weight behind this initiative.
Which strategy will win? It’s hard to say, and neither Amazon nor Walmart is willing to put all of their eggs in one basket. Walmart currently has patents pending on in-store drone technology, smart shopping carts, wearable trackers and blockchain. Amazon announced 10 acquisitions in 2017, its most acquisitive year on record. Its purchase of Whole Foods shows its willingness to make strategic purchases in ways that extend the company’s model to new verticals.
One thing is for certain: to be successful, both companies need to look beyond what is possible to what is relevant to consumers. It is a fine line to walk, particularly when so many new and innovative companies and technologies have failed. Consumers remain in the driver’s seat, with Walmart and Amazon on parallel paths which may, or may not, converge.