Big-box stores continue to add financial services

People fed up with banks and searching for convenience can take care of many monetary tasks at their local retailer.

STATESMAN WASHINGTON BUREAUApril 27, 2013 

  • CONSUMER TIPS ON PREPAID CARDS

    1. Read the fine print to see what fees you could be charged and check other policies.

    2. Find out the rules for replacing your card if it is lost or stolen. Write down the card number, security code and customer service number and keep them in a safe place.

    3. Keep your card until you are sure you will not be making any returns. Some merchants may require that refunds be added back to the card.

    SOURCE: Office of Consumer Education and Engagement, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Need to refinance your mortgage? Just put it on your shopping list next time you visit Costco, alongside the jumbo paper towels and the 6-gallon bucket of cat kibble.

Big-box stores today offer a growing number of services, from check cashing and reloadable prepaid cards to small business loans and life insurance.

The products appeal to consumers attracted to one-stop shopping, but retailers aren't subject to the same federal oversight as banks, and they might not always provide the same consumer protections.

Ten million American households - 1 in 12 - don't have any checking or savings accounts, according to a 2011 survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Twenty-four million households - 1 in 5 - have accounts but also rely on alternative financial services, such as money orders, check cashing, payday loans, tax refund loans and pawnshops.

Major retailers are developing an ever-expanding menu of financial products aimed at this underserved population, a market that generates $78 billion annually in fee and interest revenue.

In addition to mortgages, for example, Costco advertises identity protection, and auto, home and health insurance.

At Home Depot, customers can get home improvement loans for up to $40,000.

Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, offers tax preparation, check cashing, in-store bill paying, money transfers and prepaid cards that function as debit and checking alternatives.

Through a partnership with American Express, Wal-Mart's reloadable Bluebird card allows direct deposits and authorized check writing; has no monthly, annual or overdraft fees; and may carry a balance of up to $100,000. Last month, Wal-Mart announced that Bluebird accounts would be eligible for FDIC insurance, enabling deposits of government payments such as Social Security, military pay and tax refunds.

"We know many of our customers either don't have a bank account or are poorly served by banks given the costs and service issues they find with them," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Spencer said in an email. "They continue to seek alternatives that improve both the convenience and cost of everyday money services."

Wal-Mart's latest experiment is insurance. About 200 stores in Georgia and South Carolina are testing sales of life insurance policies. Customers can purchase prepaid cards at the stores that may be used to pay for one-year terms. Thecustomers then activate the policies by calling a toll-free number and speaking with licensed MetLife agents.

Retailers' interest in financial products isn't new, dating back decades to store credit and, later, branded credit cards. Wal-Mart even sought a special charter to establish its own bank, but the company withdrew its application in 2007 after resistance from the banking industry and lawmakers.

Spencer told McClatchy that Wal-Mart no longer wants to become a bank and that it doesn't have plans to provide mortgages, although Sam's Club does offer small-business loans of up to $25,000.

Bankers consider big-box stores competitors, and they want retailers that offer financial services to be supervised and examined by the same federal regulators that oversee banks.

"If they want to play the game, let's play it, but let's play it fairly," said Richard Hunt, the president and CEO of the Consumer Bankers Association, the trade association for retail banking.

Of special concern are prepaid cards. Consumers are expected to load about $200 billion on such cards this year, according to the Mercator Advisory Group, a Massachusetts-based research firm.

Prepaid card issuers don't have to disclose fees, and if cards are stolen or lost, federal regulations don't guarantee that cardholders will get their money back. Some issuers provide fraud protection, fee disclosures, dispute-resolution rights and FDIC insurance, although they aren't required by law.

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