Wal-Mart Stores Inc. says it plans to step up the marketing of its financial services offerings as it rounds out its suite of services.
"We believe awareness among our own customers is still low," Jane Thompson, the president of Wal-Mart Financial Services, said Tuesday after the financial technology company Fiserv Inc. announced that the Bentonville, Ark., merchant, the nation's largest retailer, is offering Fiserv's CheckFreePay walk-in bill service in all 3,755 of its U.S. stores.
"People know we have a pharmacy and a deli and optical services," Thompson said. "Financial services are among our least recognized offerings."
Wal-Mart has offered money orders to its customers since 1988 and money transfers since 2003 through the Minneapolis remittance company MoneyGram International Inc., emphasizing underserved financial consumers, Thompson said. MoneyGram will continue to offer same-day, expedited bill payments, she said, but with the addition of CheckFreePay for less-urgent payments, "we now have a full range of services to help our customers pay their bills."
Paul Harrison, the senior vice president and general manager of Fiserv's walk-in solutions unit, said the Brookfield, Wis., financial technology company worked with Wal-Mart for nearly two years to introduce the service, which it rolled out first at MoneyCenter sites and made available Tuesday throughout the chain.
"It needed to be convenient," he said. "It needed to save money from what they were paying."
The basic price for three-day payment is 88 cents per bill, which compares favorably to a money order and a stamp, Harrison said.
Wal-Mart charges $1.88 for next-day payments of household bills, and it said CheckFreePay reaches more than 2,500 billers. The retailer said consumers can pay using cash or a PIN debit card but that it does not accept signature debit or checks, which Scott Sandlin, the senior director of its money services unit, attributed to a higher risk of payment fraud. Wal-Mart also has famously battled the financial industry over interchange, which is higher for signature debit compared with transactions that require a personal identification number.
Neither Thompson nor Harrison would discuss the relationship's financial parameters, for example, whether Wal-Mart used its legendary buying power to demand a lower price from Fiserv than other merchants get. However, Harrison said, "Anyone who delivers the type of volume that Wal-Mart would deliver to us would get the same pricing."
The agreement will have a significant impact on the CheckFreePay business, which had 10,000 to 11,000 walk-in sites before adding Wal-Mart's 3,700-plus, and others. Today, CheckFreePay has 16,000 sites nationwide, Harrison said, many in small convenience stores, mom-and-pop shops, and storefront check-cashers and payday lenders. "The foot traffic Wal-Mart has is tremendous," he said. "It means great potential for us."
On other topics, Thompson said Wal-Mart has 2 million Wal-Mart MoneyCards in force, doubling since June 2008.
"We continue to get increasing customers, we continue to get increasing loads" on the reloadable card, she said. "People are using it as an alternative to other financial tools, not just one-and-done."
The MoneyCard is a Visa Inc.-branded card issued by GE Money, a Stamford, Conn., unit of General Electric Co. Thompson called it a "leading co-brand card."
Asked about financial services plans such as a renewed effort to obtain a bank charter, which roiled the industry the last time Wal-Mart applied in 2005, Thompson said, "we don't have plans for anything relative to a bank."
Gwenn Bezard, a research director at the research and advisory firm Aite Group LLC in Boston, said that in CheckFreePay Wal-Mart has allied itself with the leading walk-in payment service, having a market share that far outstrips any rival's.
"Overnight, they're able to have the best bill payment solution that is available out there," he said.
Bankers err when they continue to view Wal-Mart as a threat, he said. "The products they are offering today are geared toward unbanked and underbanked. If you are a community bank, you are more threatened by large national banks. That is more front and center."