By: Mitch Lipka and Jessica Wohl
January 9, 2012
Walmart's "free" offer could come with a price
As tax season begins, a decision by Wal-Mart Stores Inc to offer some free and discounted tax preparation in conjunction with its check-cashing services at more than 3,000 U.S. stores is less about giving back and more about bringing in, experts cautioned.
"No company does anything altruistically," Morningstar analyst Michael Keara said.
Now that the holiday shopping season is over, the retailer is looking for new revenue sources, he said. The company's latest offer allows consumers to have their tax refunds deposited for "free" onto a Walmart cash card. In addition, the company is working with major tax preparation firms to provide free "assisted" form 1040EZ filings.
It will take a while to see how lucrative the new service will be, given that some people will choose to pay down debt from their previous round of spending with their tax refunds, Keara said. Either way, it's going to put more money into Walmart stores and is another play to reach millions of Americans who don't use traditional banking services.
"It just locks in that they'll spend their rebate checks at Walmart," Keara said. "It's pretty smart."
Walmart already is a big player in the marketplace to cash checks for those who don't use traditional banking services and who often face steep check cashing fees. Walmart charges a flatrate price of $3 or $6 (depending on the size of the check) rather the 3 percent to 5 percent fees at check cashing services. For a $500 check, that means paying $3 at Walmart or $15 to $25 at a check cashing service.
The new program, which kicked off on Monday, come as Walmart tries to reach "unbanked" consumers, who typically don't have credit cards, either. About 85 percent of transactions at Walmart stores are paid with cash.
Some 2,800 Walmart U.S. stores have a Jackson Hewitt location, and another 250 or so stores feature H&R Block Inc.
Those providers will offer free 1040 EZ filings with tax preparation consultants in Walmart stores, said Daniel Eckert, head of Walmart financial services. Prices for other tax preparation services will be about 7 percent to 10 percent lower than at both companies' other locations, he added.
Jackson Hewitt and H&R Block already offer free basic tax return preparation through their offices and websites. It also is free to file the simplified 1040EZ on your own, or even through one of the online services, such as Intuit's TurboTax.
More than 60 million Americans do not use traditional financial services such as credit cards and checking accounts, Eckert said. Last year, these consumers paid billion of dollars in fees and interest to financial services providers. Within the next few months, they will be looking to cash more than $31 billion in tax refund checks and many could pay up to $90 for such check cashing services, he said.
"It's money that we want to make sure ends up in the right place, which is back in their pocketbooks," Eckert said.
Walmart, whose core customer has a household income of $30,000 to $60,000, has been trying to stand out to those with limited financial means. The world's largest retailer brought back holiday-season layaway on toys and electronics, letting shoppers pay in installments for a modest fee, a move that appears to have been a success.
Tax preparation is just one offering in Walmart's "MoneyCenter." The retailer also offers Walmart credit cards and money cards, money transfers, money orders along with $3 check cashing.
Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG, cautioned consumers to look at skeptically at Walmart's proposition.
"Consumers who are considering the Walmart offer should understand that Walmart is not your friend," he said.
One area of concern is the company's offer to allow consumers to have their tax refunds deposited for "free" onto a Walmart cash card, which Mierzwinski pointed out comes with a lot of fees. Some of the fees include $3 if $1,000 isn't added to a card in a given month, $2 to withdraw cash from an ATM, $1 to check your balance and $3 to replace a lost or stolen card.
"You put your refund on their card, so you're more likely to spend your refund at their store than save your refund," he said. "And you're more likely to be an impulse shopper."