Jason Del Rey is a business reporter who covered Amazon, Walmart and the business of online retail for more than a decade at Recode. His new book is “Winner Sells All: Amazon, Walmart, and the Battle for our Wallets.” (Images: HarperCollins and James Bareham, Vox Media, LLC)

Amazon famously professes to obsess about customers, not competitors, but if the company really wants to focus its business, concentrating on its battle with Walmart might not be a bad approach.

That was one of my thoughts as I read the new book “Winner Sells All: Amazon, Walmart, and the Battle for our Wallets,” by Jason Del Rey, the longtime business journalist who developed a reputation for scoops and smart reporting about the online retail industry for more than a decade at Recode and Vox Media.

As a litmus test, Amazon’s satellite venture Project Kuiper gets not one mention.

As someone who has read many books about Amazon over the years, going back to the company’s retail roots was refreshing for me as a reader. The construct of the book, and its revelations large and small, make it a worthy complement to Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store” in its delivery of foundational knowledge.

A big part of the reason is that the book is about much more than Amazon. Del Rey tells the inside story of Walmart’s retail history and its tentative entry into e-commerce with the benefit of well-placed sources and interviews with key players including Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, and Marc Lore, the e-commerce entrepreneur whose sale of Quidsi to Amazon and later Jet.com to Walmart make him the most pivotal figure in the entire story.

Beat reporters tend to focus on one company or the other, brick-and-mortar retail or online commerce, but as Del Rey explains on this episode of the GeekWire Podcast, the two companies have repeatedly impacted and influenced each other over the years in ways that have shaped their respective businesses.

“I just felt like that was an under-told story,” he says.

On top of that, they are the two biggest companies by revenue in the United States, and also the two largest private-sector employers. As Del Rey puts it in the prologue, “it’s the defining business clash of this generation—a battle waged for our loyalty and wallets, with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake and millions of jobs on the line.”

But one thing that jumps out throughout the book is how long it took some Walmart leaders to take Amazon seriously, even up to and beyond the point that Amazon acquired Whole Foods Market.

Still, leaders at the two companies have studied each other for many years. As Del Rey reports, early executives at Amazon read Sam Walton’s biography, “Made in America,” and Walmart executives tuned into Amazon’s earnings calls after the company went public, astonished by the sums the company was spending on its fulfillment network.

Amazon, for its part, has been repeatedly surprised that Walmart hasn’t been more aggressive in using its most important asset, its vast network of physical retail stores, to give itself an edge in online commerce. Del Rey documents repeated instances in which the separation of Walmart’s traditional retail and e-commerce operations have pitted different parts of the company against each other due to competing incentives and interests.

It’s the classic innovator’s dilemma, in which a company is reluctant to disrupt its own successful business in the interest of long-term growth and relevance, leaving the door open to competitors.

“In business, incentives actually matter,” Del Rey said, describing one of his takeaways from his reporting for the book.

Lore’s team “had incentives to grow and grow and grow,” he explained. “And while they were separate, the stores team had different incentives … keep that cash machine going. Cash flow was important. Profits were important. And yet, Marc and team were not judged at all, financially, based on profitability. That created a lot of problems.”

Ultimately, the big takeaway is that there is not yet a winner in this battle.

So what happens next? Del Rey devotes a chapter to healthcare initiatives from both companies, and he says this is a key area to watch as the competition between the two plays out in the coming years.

“It’s tough for me to look at the money they’re spending in that space and think they’re going to just give up in a couple years,” he says in our podcast discussion. “That impacts so many more people than just their shopping services do, potentially. So that’s something I’m paying a ton of attention to.”

“Winner Sells All: Amazon, Walmart, and the Battle for our Wallets” is available now, published by Harper Business.

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