Tahlequah Daily Press

October 9, 2012

Wal-Mart offers bank account alternative with American Express

By Matt Townsend
Bloomberg News

— Wal-Mart Stores, the world's largest retailer, has been adding financial products for people who don't have bank accounts. Now it's targeting those who do.

A prepaid debit card called Bluebird, created through a partnership with American Express, will be available in more than 4,000 U.S. Wal-Mart stores and online next week, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company said Monday in a statement. Services include direct deposit, automatic bill pay and remote check capture using a smartphone application. The card has no monthly or annual fees, and doesn't require a minimum balance.

"Bluebird is designed as a checking and debit alternative," Daniel Eckert, vice president of financial services for Wal-Mart U.S., said in an interview. The product is for "those customers who are waking up to the skyrocketing costs of having a checking account."

Wal-Mart abandoned plans to start its own bank in 2007 amid opposition from legislators and financial-services companies. At the time, the retailer's application to open a so-called industrial bank in Utah would have enabled it to process credit- card and debit card transactions internally.

The retailer has been adding financial services and products to boost store visits in the U.S. after so-called same- store sales declined for two years through July 2011, according to Matt Arnold, an analyst for Edward Jones & Co. in Des Peres, Mo. Bluebird will probably appeal to the low-income consumers Wal-Mart depends on because they can often only afford basic accounts without such features, he said.

 "There's still a huge piece of the population that doesn't enjoy that, and for them this could wind up being a better alternative," said Arnold. The card appears to be created to increase store traffic and relevance rather than profit, he said.

U.S. sales at Wal-Mart fell in part because it removed items from the stores, making it less of a one-stop shopping experience, Arnold said. While Bluebird won't have a major impact on results, it could help improve that aspect, he said.

"Anything they can do that adds to the one-stop shopping opportunity will only help their relevance," Arnold said.

Bluebird had been tested in some stores in the United States since 2011. During the pilot phase, Wal-Mart learned that its customers wanted the account to offer many of the services that banks offer without the fees, Eckert said. U.S. consumers pay an average of $259 a year for a basic checking account, Wal-Mart said in the statement, citing a study by Bretton Woods.

Wal-Mart is further capitalizing on its push for Congress to cap debit-card "swipe" fees charged to merchants, a Dodd- Frank Act provision that has cut annual revenue at the biggest U.S. banks by about $8 billion. The payments industry predicted that lenders would impose checking-account fees in response to the legislation, pushing lower-income consumers out of the banking system.

The agreement may help American Express expand beyond its core credit- and charge-card business and drive more spending to its global payments network. Targeting Wal-Mart customers also contrasts with AmEx's historic focus on affluent consumers.

"Now we have the ability to address different segments of not just the U.S. markets, but frankly across the world as well as those who might not be traditionally best served through a charge or credit product," Dan Schulman, group president of the firm's enterprise growth business, said on a conference call.

Wal-Mart and American Express are backing the start of the program with a national marketing campaign that will include television ads, Eckert said.

A Bluebird starter kit will sell exclusively in Wal-Mart locations for $5. It will be merchandised at checkout and at the front of stores, Eckert said. Consumers can also go to Bluebird's website and sign up for free.

The addition of Bluebird may help Wal-Mart to attract shoppers from Dollar General Corp. and Family Dollar Stores Inc. that have been gaining customers since the recession by adding food and other products, said Patrick McKeever, managing director for MKM Partners in Stamford, Connecticut. Bluebird users can deposit cash into the account at Wal-Mart stores.

"You get consumers in the stores to do more of their financial transactions, and maybe that represents a modest threat to the dollar stores," McKeever said. "Dollar stores don't offer this kind of service currently."

Wal-Mart declined to disclose the financial terms of the partnership. Bluebird can only be used where American Express is accepted, Eckert said.