The Amazon-Walmart Showdown That Explains the Modern Economy

I used to buy my dress shirts from a Hong Kong tailor. They fit perfectly, but ordering required an awkward meeting with a visiting salesman in a hotel suite. They took six weeks to arrive, and they cost around $120 each, which adds up fast when you need to buy eight or 10 a year to keep up with wear and tear.

Then several years ago I realized that a company called Bonobos was making shirts that fit me nearly as well, that were often sold three for $220, or $73 each, and that would arrive in two days.

Bonobos became my main shirt provider, at least until recently, when I learned that Amazon was trying to get into the upper-end men’s shirt game. The firm’s “Buttoned Down” line, offered to Amazon Prime customers, uses high-quality fabric and is a good value at $40 for basic shirts. I bought a few; they don’t fit me quite as well as the Bonobos, but I do prefer the stitching.

I’m on the fence as to which company will provide my next shirt order, and a new deal this week makes it a doubly interesting quandary: Walmart is buying Bonobos.

Amazon vs. Walmart

Walmart’s move might seem a strange decision. It is not a retailer people typically turn to for $88 summer weight shirts in Ruby Wynwood Plaid or $750 Italian wool suits. Then again, Amazon is best known as a reseller of goods made by others.

Walmart and Amazon have had their sights on each other for years, each aiming to be the dominant seller of goods — however consumers of the future want to buy them. It increasingly looks like that “however” is a hybrid of physical stores and online-ordering channels, and each company is coming at the goal from a different starting point.

Amazon is the dominant player in online sales, and is particularly strong among affluent consumers in major cities. It is now experimenting with physical bookstores and groceries as it looks to broaden its reach.

Walmart has thousands of stores that sell hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of goods. It is particularly strong in suburban and rural areas and among low- and middle-income consumers, but it’s playing catch-up with online sales and affluent urbanites.

Why are these two mega-retailers both trying to sell me shirts? The short answer is because they both want to sell everything.

More specifically, Bonobos is known as an innovator in exactly this type of hybrid of online and physical store sales. Its website and online customer service are excellent, and it operates stores in major cities where you can try on garments and order items to be shipped directly. Because all the actual inventory is centralized, the stores themselves can occupy minimal square footage.

So the acquisition may help Walmart build expertise in the very areas where it is trying to gain on Amazon. You can look at the Amazon acquisition of Whole Foods through the same lens. The grocery business has a whole different set of challenges from the types of goods that Amazon has specialized…

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