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October 9, 2012

Wal-Mart offers bank account alternative with American Express

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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.

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