The recession left its mark on many industries, but if it had a silver lining for 7-Eleven Inc., it may have been the opening it created to get into a more-profitable array of financial-services products in response to shifting consumer demand.

After experimenting with a few different approaches, the Dallas-based convenience-store chain is ramping up its offerings of alternative banking products throughout its 6,200 U.S. stores, with a strong emphasis on reloadable prepaid debit cards.

The company earlier this month began selling Netspend cards in 5,000 of its stores alongside prepaid cards from Green Dot Corp. Previously 7-Eleven offered only reload services for Netspend customers.

7-Eleven also this year began selling Western Union Co.'s MoneyWise reloadable debit cards at its stores as part of a plan to further expand its financial-services offerings, the company says.

And the convenience-store chain just introduced the option for customers at most of its stores to make electronic payments and purchase bus tickets with cash through PayNearMe Inc.

"Each of these alternative banking products and prepaid cards has subtle differences and unique features, and we want to offer our customers a broad range of choices," says Raja Doddala, 7-Eleven senior product director for services and business development.

Some research suggests as many as one-third of U.S. consumers lack access to traditional banking services, Doddala says, and 7-Eleven now aims to become a destination for those seeking a full range of alternative financial-services options. In doing so, the company hopes to capture a bigger share of consumers' growing demand for alternative financial services and to generate more store traffic.

The retailer first introduced Green Dot's reloadable prepaid cards in late 2009 as the recession deepened. Immediate results were positive, and the company began making plans to expand its offerings, including revamping its stores to accommodate more such products, Doddala says.

"We were somewhat late to the prepaid market at that time, … but we also entered during what turned out to be a perfect storm," Doddala says. "The timing coincided with the financial crisis, the credit crunch and a general distrust of financial services companies when consumers began looking around for alternatives."

Even so, 7-Eleven has moved carefully in evaluating its options in its latest financial-services push because it is not a newcomer to the arena. A longtime purveyor of reloadable prepaid phone cards and cell-phone services, 7-Eleven several years ago developed a proprietary network of in-store ATMs called Vcoms that enable consumers to perform a variety of banking services, including bill payment.

But 7-Eleven ultimately decided offering more-complex banking services was not a great fit, and it sold the operation in 2007 to Cardtronics Inc.

7-Eleven's latest moves are in sync with those of other retailers capitalizing on growing awareness and access to reloadable prepaid debit cards, says Ben Jackson, senior analyst at Mercator Advisory Group.

"There is a general recognition that reloadable prepaid cards can be sold side by side, and it provides retailers like 7-Eleven with more foot traffic, which it hopes will cause people to make more purchases while they're inside the store," Jackson says.

Although 7-Eleven and other retailers typically receive a cut of the revenues from reloadable prepaid cards they sell, industry profit margins are relatively thin, Jackson notes. "The key for the card companies to generate profits is to get volume, and clearly that is where they want to go with 7-Eleven," he says.

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