How media buyers view the retail media landscape — from Amazon to Walmart to Wawa

Today’s retail media network landscape could be compared to the California gold rush of the 1800s. Google’s third-party cookie is finally crumbling, making gold out of the alternative first-party data as retailers chase audience insights.

The promise of wealth, or in this case, ad dollars, has the marketplace heating up with scads of retailers, from first-movers like Amazon to newcomers like Wawa convenience store — even to the unsuspected like Cars.com automotive company.

By the end of this year, retail media ad spend is expected to make up one-fifth of worldwide digital ad spend, scooping up $140 billion, which is up from the forecasted $115 billion in 2023, according to eMarketer.

Retail media is a growing space, no doubt. Especially as advertisers are eager to plug the holes Google’s third-party cookie deprecation is leaving behind. But that growth has led to fragmentation as agencies grapple with where to spend client ad dollars that’ll give the most bang for their buck.

“From where we sit as an agency, it’s certainly making our lives and our day-to-day work more exciting, more challenging,” said Ethan Goodman, evp of digital commerce at The Mars Agency.

In regards to the biggest players in the space, like Amazon Ads, Roundel (Target’s retail media business), Walmart Connect and Albertsons Media Collective, he said, “They have significantly improved and scaled their capabilities — their audience and targeting capabilities, their measurement capabilities. Really practically, they’ve improved their channel offering and the breadth of their channel capabilities.”

Digiday caught up with Goodman and other agency executives to talk about how the retail media competition is looking — and the players most on their radar.

01
Amazon Ads

Amazon Advertising launched in 2012, giving it a first-mover advantage in the space and making it almost synonymous with the concept of retail media. This year, Amazon is expected to hoover up 74% of the nearly $60 billion in U.S. digital retail media ad spend, according to eMarketer’s forecasts. Given its pure scale, Amazon could stand as an unexpected beneficiary of Google Chrome’s third-party cookie fallout once the dust settles.

As its business matures, the mammoth-sized company has made recent ad tech and artificial intelligence upgrades to enhance its offering as well as new inventory, selling ads on Prime Video to advertisers. This layers on top of its self-service ad solution through its owned streaming services like Freevee, Twitch and Thursday Night Football, and in-store advertising through Whole Foods Market and Amazon Fresh, making it a top contender for ad dollars.

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“A lot of our brand national dollars are spent across Amazon,” said an agency executive who spoke with Digiday and requested anonymity. The exec did not disclose spend figures. “As CPG becomes more important for Amazon and grocery becomes a bigger deal for them, whether that’s through Whole Foods or Amazon Fresh or other places, we’re going to see our CPG spend continue to increase.”

Beyond its sheer size (it touts an audience of more than 150 million), Amazon’s ad business is an ecosystem with data from Amazon DSP, Amazon Ads APIs and Amazon Marketing Cloud, offering marketers more granular audience insights. Amazon also opened its platform to developers and plug-ins for things like dashboards or other tools.

“They’re able to do closed loop attribution, whereby the performance of an impression served on Amazon Prime can be tracked back to what it ultimately helps drive at the Amazon.com level,” said Harry Inglis, head of activation at Media by Mother, Mother’s three-year-old media agency. “It’s hard to compete with.“

02
Walmart Connect

Another early entrant to the retail media competition, Walmart Connect, has moved recently to close the gap between it and Amazon. In February, Walmart announced plans to acquire smart TV manufacturer Vizio for $2.3 billion, bolstering its retail media offering by adding more streaming capabilities. In January, it set its sights on a TikTok integration, offering advertisers sales measurement data and access to the coveted Gen Z audience. Both of these events build on its partnership with Roku, announced in 2022, to bring shoppable ads to streaming. And it helps that Walmart has a massive physical presence with more than 4,600 locations in the U.S., shadowing Amazon’s 500 Whole Foods Markets.

Having launched back in 2017, Walmart Connect has spent the last year-and-a-half beefing up its advertising capabilities, including the Walmart Connect Academy Ad Certification program to educate agencies and brands on what it can do. Its latest move with Vizio, and now integration with TikTok, is intended to reach advertisers’ latest fascination: streaming and digital video.

“The more that they’re moving those digital solutions in-store, I think will be some of the growth,” the anonymous agency exec told Digiday. “[RMNs] already made partnerships and social, which was smart because that’s where people are spending a lot of their time. And then, now where? Now, it’s streaming?”

Spending on platforms outside of Amazon, like Walmart, Target and the like, is seeing double-digit growth this year. Notably, Walmart appears to be at the helm of said growth spurt, according to previous Digiday reporting.

03
Albertsons Media Collective

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s decision to block the Kroger-Albertsons merger last month may have put a wrench in growth plans, but Albertsons Media Collective is still one of the top contenders for retail media network spend — a tertiary challenger, behind the likes of Amazon, Walmart, Target and of course, Kroger, agency execs say.

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It only launched back in 2022, but has sparked advertisers’ interest, noted as a more ambitious player in the space, listening to both needs and wants in the marketplace, per agency execs. Last January, Albertsons became the first advertiser to use LiveRamp and Pinterest’s clean room offering to tie offline sales to online behavior.

But perhaps most notably, the grocery chain has started aiming to tackle standardization and measurement issues, a pain point in an increasingly crowded and fragmented marketplace. And that’s what sets it apart, per agency execs.

“Albertsons actually came out publicly and are talking all about measurement and standardization,” said a second agency exec who wished to remain anonymous. “They’re really trying to set the standards, be the retailer that’s leaning into these standards.”

04
The Home Depot’s Retail Media+

In a sea of retail media networks, agency executives highlighted The Home Depot’s unique data as a keen proposition to advertisers. The retailer offers on-site and off-site ad placements and is able to create audiences around specific groups, including people who have recently moved, those who are redecorating, or setting up a business or any other life event. Each of these data points can win over a range of advertisers, whether it be internet providers or insurance companies.

The niche nature of The Home Depot, which launched its offering in 2019, gives it a competitive edge for some executives. Instead of identifiers like demographics or psychographic data, The Home Depot builds audiences based on home projects shoppers are doing — a data point not easily found within the retail media space, especially at that scale. Notably, the company has more than 2,300 stores across North America.

“Home Depot, they actually have something unique in the sense of they created the retail media plus network,” said the second agency exec. “From that capacity, they are trying to not only sell media to their suppliers, but ask their suppliers what they want.”

In a recent interview with Digiday, Melanie Babcock, vp of Retail Media+ and monetization at The Home Depot, said the company is looking to expand beyond endemic advertisers.

05
Instacart

Instacart exploded during the pandemic lockdown, when shoppers turned to the delivery service to shop at grocery stores and convenience stores without leaving the comfort of their home. 

In a post-Covid world, agency execs wondered if Instacart would continue to thrive and if it would gobble up ad dollars via its retail media network, which launched in 2022.

“We were questioning whether it was true incrementality because a lot of what they were delivering was retailers that we already had agreements with. They were just the delivery platform at the time,” said the first agency executive. Thus far, they said, it’s held up. 

This year, the company started looking at off-site retail media, pitching advertisers on Google Shopping ads, which are enhanced by its own retail media data. As Retail Dive recently reported in January, early advertisers for the move include Danone’s Oikos and Kraft Heinz’s Kraft.

That partnership has sparked advertisers’ interest as the company’s retail partners are making placements available on their shopping cart, an interesting proposition for consumer packaged goods brands, the exec said.

Other off-site efforts include a partnership with Roku last April, and ad targeting on Sprouts Farmers Market last May.

06
Kroger Precision Marketing

With seven years in the retail media network game, Kroger Precision Marketing (KPM) has made a name for itself, partnering with the likes of Cooler Screens, Meta, Pinterest, Roku, Snap, The Trade Desk and others. 

Like Albertsons, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s decision to block the Kroger-Albertsons merger may have put a damper on growth. But with recent innovations, growth is expected to continue. The retailer has been steadily growing its ad offering, with efforts to marry online and offline sales data dating back to 2020.

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Last November, KPM announced new programmatic capabilities with The Trade Desk. Last June, Kroger took its self-service ad platform in-house, giving advertisers access to the grocer’s product listing ads as well as display advertising.

“Kroger is one of the top offerings in the U.S.,” said the second agency executive. “We think the best data offerings to date. However, they are extremely conservative when it comes to making any type of decisions (innovations, legal, negotiations etc.).” Again, this is in comparison to retailers like Albertsons, which the agency exec says is more ambitious when it comes to responding to an ever-changing marketplace.

Kroger may have more red tape, but it has spent the last year-and-a-half shifting to a “mindset of collaboration,” according to the first agency executive. The retailer has also started to focus on things like standardization and measurement. All in all, Kroger is considered a top partner for the agency, who said Kroger’s offering is on par with Walmart.

07
Target’s Roundel

Target has been aiming to build a media business to rival Amazon since rebranding as Roundel in 2019. Seemingly, it’s making good on its promise, coming in at marketers’ third most-used retail media network, according to Digiday research, behind Amazon and Walmart. 

Last October, Target announced that it was enhancing its Roundel retail media business with Roundel Media Studio, a self-service buying tool, premium programmatic publisher partners and experimenting with shoppable connected TV. Roundel has recently been focused on expanding both its onsite and offsite inventory, including new ad formats like shoppable CTV, according to The Mars Agency’s Retail Media Report Card, a quarterly assessment and comparison retail media platform comparison tool.

It all makes a compelling argument as far as advertisers are concerned. Meaning Roundel is considered one of the leaders in the retail media landscape, given the retailer’s capabilities around audiences, channels and measurement. “They are also notably ahead of the game when it comes to taking an integrated approach to media and merchandising, and creating both seamless omnichannel experiences for Target guests and holistic, added-value opportunities for brands/advertisers,” said a third agency exec, who spoke anonymously.

08
Wawa’s Goose Media Network

Wawa convenience store is the latest to throw its hat in the ring as a retail media network competitor. While having only launched weeks ago, agency executives say clients are already interested in its offerings, especially in its fuel pump screen inventory.

The convenience store partnered with Publicis Groupe’s Publicis Sapient, Epsilon, and CitrusAd for its offering, with custom ads and campaigns on digital channels like Wawa’s websites, mobile app or video ads at a Wawa pump — a selling point for advertisers looking for more ways to get in front of shoppers.

“In addition to allowing brands to reach their shoppers on their website and inside their mobile app, they’re also making some of their gas station screen inventory available,” said Goodman. “Some of those unique inventory opportunities are again, a potential point of differentiation for players like that.”

Other selling points are Wawa’s audience, which could be unique given it has a cult-like following, and its ability to close the loop from customers seeing an ad at the pump before going into the convenience store to make a purchase. Given, the convenience store chain is smaller with about 1,000 locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida. This year, the convenience store opened its first Georgia location.

“For a challenger like Wawa to go out to the brand marketplace and say, ‘I can uniquely reach this audience segment that you can’t reach through another retail media network,’ is a potential way in and is an advantage for them for sure,” per Goodman.

https://digiday.com/?p=538342

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