The retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is seeking permission to purchase a federal thrift to market low-cost banking products to its customers.
In an application filed Tuesday with the Office of Thrift Supervision, the Bentonville, Ark.-based discounter said it plans to open thrift branches in five Wal-Mart "supercenters" during its second year of operation. The branches would concentrate on offering home loans and other "value-priced" products, according to the application.
Wal-Mart would open an unspecified number of additional branches in the thrift's third year of operation. The company operates approximately 600 supercenters - stores that sell home furnishings as well as groceries - and 1,869 discount stores throughout the United States.
Jay Allen, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said it was "way too early to speculate" whether Wal-Mart would seek to create tie-ins between financial products and its traditional discount fare.
If allowed to buy $26 million-asset Federal BankCentre of Broken Arrow, Okla., Wal-Mart said it would spend the first year familiarizing itself with the business of banking.
"Large banking institutions have not always provided the full range of cost-effective services to the people who need those services the most," sometimes declining to open branches in Wal-Mart stores located in poor areas, the application said. "The purchase of (Federal BankCentre) will allow Wal-Mart to address those needs."
Wal-Mart's application was filed just two days before a scheduled House vote on financial modernization legislation. The bill would make it harder for commercial firms to purchase thrifts.
According to its application, Wal-Mart would market banking products primarily to the estimated 20% of its customer base who do not have an established banking relationship; many of these people live in rural areas or small towns.
"They're definitely going to reach out to the unbanked and the underbanked" with inexpensive products, said John B. Beaty, one of two Venable law firm lawyers managing Wal-Mart's thrift application. "That's the Wal-Mart philosophy."
Mr. Beaty said the thrift would not be Wal-Mart's first foray into financial services. The retailer already offers check cashing, which he said has been a "tremendous asset" for unbanked customers.