RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This holiday shopping season, companies have devised many plans to make sure when you part with a dollar, it goes into their cash registers. The latest strategy: same-day delivery. The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, is going head-to-head with Amazon in offering quick delivery, but only in a few cities for now. NPR's Jeff Brady lives in one of them: Philadelphia.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: I need to order supplies for work: some batteries for my audio recorder, printer paper, some envelopes. There's a Wal-Mart store just about three miles from my house, and I could easily drive there, but I'm going to try this new same-day delivery service.
(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)
BRADY: The website is pretty easy to use: Just create an account, click on the items you want, pay for them. If you're a thrifty shopper, this is where some sticker shock might come in: In most areas, the delivery fee is $10, no matter what you order.
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BRADY: In my case, the order arrived about five hours later.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi.
BRADY: Hey, there.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For you.
BRADY: Ah, OK. Is this the Wal-Mart one?
This same-day delivery service is a test Wal-Mart is conducting during the holiday season in four areas.
RAVI JARIWALA: In Northern Virginia, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and just recently this month, we activated San Jose and San Francisco.
BRADY: That's Wal-Mart spokesman Ravi Jariwala. Wal-Mart, along with much of the rest of the retail world, is trying out new ways of selling stuff. You can order online and have it delivered, or pick it up at your local store. Jariwala says you can even order online and pay cash at the store if you prefer.
JARIWALA: This is all about combining our national footprint of stores with our website to really offer customers anytime, anywhere access to Wal-Mart.
BRADY: That may sound like just a sales pitch, but it signifies a change in the retail world. Barbara Kahn is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania.
BARBARA KAHN: Used to be, Wal-Mart, you know, planted a store in some location. You got in your car, you drove when they were open. You bought. You packed it up or whatever you did in your car. You drove home and unpacked it.
BRADY: But with a more competitive environment, Kahn says customers have a bit more power. Retailers want to make sure whenever and wherever customers are ready to buy, they are there and ready to sell. Of course, there are limits. Not everything in the store is available for same-day delivery. And if you live in a rural area, hours from a Wal-Mart, don't expect same-day delivery anytime soon, says Kahn.
KAHN: The urban market is the one, A, that may value it the most, because people may not have cars, so delivery might matter more. And, two, the efficiencies and the density the customer base might make it a better cost proposition.
BRADY: Other companies have had mixed results with delivery. It's just a lot more expensive bringing products to your customers. Wal-Mart hasn't committed to same-day delivery for the long-term, says Jariwala.
JARIWALA: We just launched it a couple of weeks ago. So we're running it throughout the holiday season. We don't have an end date in mind, but it will be available throughout this holiday season. And we'll be making - you know, we'll be evaluating and making further determinations at the end of the test.
BRADY: One issue: returns. I ordered the wrong size copy paper - legal instead of letter. I ended up driving to the story anyway to exchange it. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia.