Arkansas Business: Walmart expanding into bank-like services

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is always in growth mode.

And one of the ways it continues to expand is by entering businesses outside of retail.

In 2005, Wal-Mart stores caught the attention of traditional bankers when it applied to get a bank charter in Utah.

At the time, the retailer defended the move, saying it was seeking a limited charter to it could handle electronic payment processing at its stores, and not to offer traditional banking services.

The banking industry wasn't convinced and feared Wal-Mart might eventually get more involved in financial services. And so after months of protest by banking leaders, Wal-Mart abandoned the effort in 2007.

But today, you'd be hard-pressed to say Wal-Mart isn't heavily involved in financial services, some of which are coming increasingly close to traditional banking.

Wal-Mart has partnerships with independent banks across the country, leasing those banks valuable retail space inside their Wal-Mart stores.

And Wal-Mart has launched money transfer services throughout its more than 4,000 stores, undercutting similar services, and it's partnered with American Express on the BlueBird card.

The BlueBird card is a pre-paid card that acts like a checking account, and it's proven popular with customers who can't afford or don't want to deal with the fees at traditional banks.

That service, launched in late 2011, now has more than 1 million accounts, and more than $2 billion has been added to the cards.

The banking industry continues to monitor Wal-Mart's activity with a wary eye.

According to a survey by Bank Director magazine released last week, 58 percent of 120 bank professionals said they were "very concerned" about nonbank competition.

In particular, they're concerned about competitors not falling under the same regulatory rules the banks have to abide by.

Meanwhile, one retail analyst Arkansas Business talked to says Wal-Mart has a simple reason for entering financial services -- it's just one more way to get more and new customers inside its stores.


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