American Express Now Serves Walmart with Bluebird Prepaid Card

image Wow, the national press jumped all over the American Express and Walmart partnership to sell/service the Amex-branded Bluebird prepaid card nationwide (882 articles linked from Google news).

Analysts waxed eloquent about how Walmart is building out its “banking” services and how much cheaper the prepaid card is compared to a checking account.

But in fact, there will be little impact on Walmart shoppers, who can already buy a similar Walmart-branded prepaid Visa card in its stores. And that Green Dot-powered Moneycard will continue to be available, though it sounds like Bluebird could get more prominence. But that will depend on which company is paying the highest slotting fees/revenue share. 

But what almost all the press coverage overlooks is that Bluebird is only good at locations that accept American Express (4.5 mil in US), whereas the Green Dot card is good anywhere Visa is accepted (8 mil in US). While most major retailers take both (note 1), that’s still a huge difference in value for many Walmart customers.

Look at the current Walmart financial services menu (pre-Bluebird). It already offers every money-handling service under the sun, including a general purpose reloadable prepaid card with no fees for heavy users (see screenshot below).

Walmart MoneyCenter homepage (9 Oct 2012)

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imagePricing
Pricing for both the Amex Bluebird (inset) and Visa MoneyCard are low (see below). The main difference is that BlueBird eliminated monthly fees, while MoneyCard charges $3 per month for anyone who loads less than $1000.

Bottom line: Amex got amazing press out of the deal that should help establish it as a leader in prepaid. But it’s a real unknown how many Walmart shoppers want to carry around an Amex card with less merchant acceptance.

I think it may even cause quite a bit of confusion in-store if the BlueBird card is pushed ahead of the Green Dot version.

And while American Express seems to have made important in-roads, it’s not possible to assess the ROI since we do not know how much it is paying Walmart for the distribution deal.

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Current MoneyCard fees (9 Oct 2012)
Note: Monthly fee is waived for those loading at least $1000 per month to the card

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Notes:
1. Costco takes only American Express, so score one for Bluebird.
2. Customers involved in the Bluebird pilot (sold this year at 80 western U.S. Walmarts) must close their old account prior to 8 Dec 2012 and open a new one. The company is offering a $20 bonus to cover the hassle (link).
3. Amex acquired the website Bluebird.com which currently redirects to BlueBirdMoney.com. A greeting card company operates BlueBirdCards.com, which currently ranks high on Google, but will get crushed by BlueBird.com once the product launches nationwide.

Guess What I’ve Been Researching Online?

imageI realize that ads based on recent activity are effective. But it’s still slightly unnerving, wondering whether you’ve lost every last bit of privacy or that you’ve been hit by an adware virus. But overall, it’s good to get relevant offers, especially when one has a $10 bonus in it (see AmEx below).

Here’s the two ads tossed my way while I was checking the status of my son’s flight today:

Amex Serve and Geico ads

I wrote a blog post on Serve yesterday (see AmEx promo on top of the page) and have been banging around insurance sites (see Geico ad on right) for the past two weeks as I wrap up a report on the subject.

AmEx Serve offer
Perhaps because I didn’t sign up yesterday, American Express is throwing me $10 to try Serve, its P2P payments service. Here’s the excellent landing page (link):

American Express Servce landing page

After entering your email address, the button turns to a thank-you. It’s good feedback for the user and keeps them from accidentally submitting the form twice.

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Here’s the email sent a few moments later:

American Express Serve email

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Notes:
1. Button credit Zazzle.com
2. We covered P2P payments two years ago in our Online Banking Report (subscription).

American Express Serves Up P2P "Pay Me Back" on Ticketmaster

image It’s a problem as old as money itself. The person making a purchase on behalf of a group inevitably gets stuck with a larger share as others “forget” to pay him/her back (note 1).

Two weeks ago, American Express launched a clever product tie-in on TicketMaster to help change that. After making a purchase, a prominently placed box suggests using Serve to “Get Paid Back.” Buyers are encouraged to use Serve to send money requests to friends for their share of the tickets. Given how social ticket purchasing is, it’s a great place to introduce P2P.

But there’s still the not-so-small problem of getting everyone signed up. Both sender and recipient must have Serve accounts. And while all transaction are currently free, the FAQs warn that coming Jan 1, there will be a fee of 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction funded via credit card. Checking account (ACH)-based transactions will remain free.

To beat PayPal at this game, the service needs more than just well-placed ads. For example, integration directly into the Ticketmaster shopping cart, where buyers could enter friends’ email addresses to automatically “charge” them their share (subject to their approval of course).

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Product placement after purchasing on Ticketmaster (11 Nov 2011)

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Landing page

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Note: We covered P2P payments two years ago in our Online Banking Report (subscription). 

Reviewed: The American Express Gift Card Store and its New eGift Card Option

imageThe banking website is a unique animal. Part account management. Part service. Part sales. Part consumer. Part business. And it all must pass muster with the CEO, IT, marketing, customer support, heads of business lines, the board, and about 2,000 regulatory agencies. It’s no wonder that it can be difficult to keep up with ecommerce Web-design standards. 

When I started this post, the intent was to show how American Express had overcome typical banking shortfalls and was doing ecommerce right. I liked what I saw at first glance. But after diving in and actually using the gift card site, I have to say that the company still has quite a ways to go to equal Amazon.com, Buy.com or even Etsy.

My take: Overall, it’s a good structure for selling gift cards. But there are a number of things to clean up, mostly in the purchasing and fulfillment process. And the mobile option didn’t work at all, at least on the iPhone 4. For now, I’ll give it a B+ for layout/design and a C- for execution.

Let’s start with the good parts:

  • New virtual gift card costs $1 less ($2.95), has no shipping charges (which range from $2 to $8.95 per order), and can be emailed in near real-time
  • Option to create a “gift card account” to save payment info and make purchasing into a “1-click” process (only available to AmEx cardholders though)
  • Easy to find business or personal options by choosing the correct tab near the top
  • Shopping process uses cart system to order multiple designs and denominations
  • Ability to shop for cards for specific occasions (birthday, wedding, etc.)
  • Signup for email offers (bottom of main page)
  • Mobile shopping link to open a mobile-optimized site (bottom of page…which actually didn’t work on my iPhone 4, see below)
  • Personalization options including uploaded photos and recipient name embossed on card
  • Click-to-call (powered by Oracle) offered when arriving via Google AdWords ad
  • Link to purchase gift cards with Membership Rewards points
  • Unlimited next-day shipping option. Pay $99, and for the next year, all gift cards will be delivered for no charge via next-day shipping
  • Link to buy Gift Cheques for old-school users

What needs to be improved:

  • Inconsistent fee disclosure: Although the site discloses the $2.95 to $6.95 processing fee as items are selected, this fee is NOT shown in the cart totals before checkout. And I couldn’t find an answer on the site to the simple question I had: Is it $3.95 per card or per order?  
  • Card terms not explained: There is lots of confusion in the gift card market about expiration dates, monthly fees and such. In the traditional plastic gift-card area, AmEx does virtually nothing to help users understand what they are buying; however, it’s new virtual gift card is explained well.
  • Lack of direct customer service: When navigating to the site through organic search, there is no way to get a quick question answered via live chat or email. Users must follow the Contact Us link in the upper right to find contact info.
  • Obtrusive banners: The banner section (in upper left) is too large for a focused microsite and distracts from the task at hand. And one of the three is way off topic, touting an AmEx award from PayBefore for the “Best Web Sales Channel.” That has absolutely zero interest to buyers and is one of the odder banner ads I’ve ever seen run on a major financial website (although I expect AmEx tested it and found some sales lift). 
  • Clunky checkout process: The form-design itself is adequate, but is missing a few features such as an immediate error message if you type in a dollar amount that does not work. I also found myself clicking Continue at the bottom of the page which won’t work until you first press Add to Cart.
  • Slow website: I tested the site several times over a two-day period and consistently had trouble completing an order. Without more research, I don’t know if it’s an AmEx issue or just unfortunate timing on my part; in either case, it was pretty frustrating. 
  • Too many navigation options: The top of the gift card page contains AmEx’s normal page navigation options: My Account | Cards | Travel | Rewards | Business
    While those are helpful for cardholders looking to access other services, they distract from the task at hand, selecting a gift card(s). 
  • Boring gift card email (screenshot #3): The email went out right away and there was nothing technically wrong with it. But I would have expected a little more excitement and design pizzazz. After all, it’s not every day that someone sends you real money. Also, I was really surprised that the email did not contain the amount of the gift card or the personal message that I composed. That info eventually shows up during the activation process.
  • Bizarre activation screen using Google Chrome for PC (screenshot 4): At first the page came up with a congratulations message, and an error message, even though I hadn’t completed the authentication step of entering the captcha info. However, after the page fully loaded, all the extraneous messages disappeared. Also, it looked fine on Chrome on my Mac (I didn’t test other browsers).
  • Virtual card itself is a “low-tech” PDF (screenshot 5): I’m not sure what I was expecting at the end of the process, but having a PDF version of my virtual gift card seems anti-climactic. And the PDF popup (again in Chrome) doesn’t have the usual save/print function along the top, so initially I was stuck as to how I would remember the card info to actually use it. By accident, I found that if I moved my mouse over the lower right part of the popup, that the print/save functions all of a sudden appeared as floating controls. It would be a whole lot better for the user if the card info was simply contained in the original email or if you could at least email the info to yourself after activation. I think a lot of these cards are going to end up lost as PDF files on the hard drive, the modern equivalent of the old paper travelers cheque being socked away in a drawer for decades.
  • Mobile site was unusable (unless logged in): On the online site, there’s a link promoting mobile ordering of gift cards by navigating to <americanexpress.com/gift> on their phone. I manually entered that URL in my iPhone 4 and was taken to a site dominated by a login screen (screenshot 6). There is a link to gift cards below the fold, but pressing it just reloaded the same page (evidently you have to log in first). This was a total mobile fail.

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1. American Express Gift Card landing page <americanexpress.com/gift-cards> (8 Sept. 2011)

1. American Express
Gift Card landing page <americanexpress.com/gift-cards>

2. Personalized photo gift card order form
Note: Shipping fees are disclosed at the bottom, and the purchase fee pops up after you select a dollar amount.

Anex Personalized photo gift card order form

3. Recipient email notification they’ve received an eGift Card

3. Email to recipient of American Express eGift Card

4. Activation process starts with a bizarre screen that eventually renders correctly, but not before thoroughly confusing the user
Note: Eventually the lower half of this screen disappeared and only the top activation portion remained

4. Activation process started with a bizarre screen

5. The virtual card is downloaded as a PDF which can be printed or saved by the recipient

5. The virtual card is downloaded as a PDF which can be printed or saved by the recipient

6. The American Express “Gift Card site” as seen through an iPhone 4

6. The American Express "Gift Card site" as seen through an iPhone 4

Finally, a Facebook Credit Card Connection to Really Like (Thanks American Express)

image Since Facebook became the de facto social operating system a year or two ago, I’ve been a little surprised the financial powers haven’t jumped on board more aggressively (note 1). But the card companies have had their hands full dealing with the credit meltdown, so it’s understandable.

But now that “big cards” are moving forward again, we’ll see a burst of activity leveraging Facebook and other social networks during 2012 and beyond (note 2).

Link, Like, Love from American Express  is a great example of what’s to come.

Here’s how it works (1 thru 5 illustrated in screenshots below):

  • Step 1: Go to the American Express Facebook page
  • Step 2: Add “Link. Like. Love.” to your Facebook profile
  • Step 3: Link your AmEx card to the app
  • Step 4: Sign up for offers you like
  • Step 5: Visit the merchant (whenever you like) and pay with your AmEx card
  • Step 6: The discount will automatically appear as a statement credit on your card

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Analysis
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The AmEx program is very similar to bankcard-based, merchant-funded rewards, except for one huge difference. Instead of “liking the offer” during infrequent visits to your bank/card statement, you do it while on Facebook, which the typical user visits approximately a zillion times more than their bank (note 3).

MasterCard/Visa issuers will follow the same path, but AmEx bagged a ton of free publicity along with the first 2 million users. Like it, a lot.
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Step 1: Visit American Express Facebook page
Note: 2 million “likes” (note 4)

Step 1: Visit American Express Facebook page

Step 2: Add the AmEx app

Step 2: Add the AmEx app

Step 3: Link card

Step 3: Link American Express card to Facebook

Step 3a: Complete form on AmEx webpage

Step 3a: Complete form on AmEx webpage

Step 3b: Share with friends (optional)

Step 4: Share with friends (optional)

Step 4: Activate offers with two clicks

Step 5: Activate Amex offers with single click

Step 4a: Confirm

Step 5a: Confirm

Step 4b: More optional sharing

Step 6: More sharing (optional)

Final: Offer now shows “Added”

Final: Offer now shows "Added"

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Notes:
1. Chase had the first “1+ million likes” financial promotion in early 2010 with its brilliant Community Giving program
2. We’ll see some great Facebook integration at FinvoateFall in two months. 
3. Presumably, I’ll be getting all kinds of Facebook and/or email messages from AmEx; although 2 hours post-signup, nothing was in either inbox.
4. During the 2 hours or so (4 to 6 PM Pacific) that elapsed while I was working on this post, the number of likes increased by more than 300. That translates to 3,000+ per day, or close to 100,000 per month. I don’t know how many likes AmEx had when the program launched, but it sounds like reasonable traction.

American Express Wants to Power Your iTunes Purchases

image How much does the average American Express cardholder spend in the iTunes store each month? A lot. And how often do you go to iTunes and change your default card? Never. Is it worth $5 to have your card powering an iTunes account? To American Express it is.

I’m sure the card company’s spreadsheet shows a payback within a year or two on incremental interchange alone. But more important is the added stickiness these frequent Apple purchases give to the card. Plus, it can’t hurt to associate your brand with the most valuable tech company on the planet.  

The fine print
To earn the five-song credit, cardholders must make a purchase with their Amex card between Feb. 10 and March 15. That earns a statement credit equal to five song downloads. It doesn’t say which song price-point is used in the calculation, but I’m guessing the standard $0.99.

Relevance to Netbankers
It’s always good business to get your card installed as an automatic payment source. Interchange goes up, credit card receivables improve, and you’ve added one more electronic hook to the account. So consider taking a similar approach and offering a small bounty after your card is used with a new biller.

iTunes promo on main Amex account page (Business Gold, 11 Feb. 2011)

iTunes promo on main American Express account page

Enrollment screen (link)

 Amex Enrollment screen

American Express Now Offers Basic PFM Functions

image I was pleasantly surprised today to find that American Express has slipped basic PFM (personal financial management) functionality into its online card management area (note 1). The company allows the user to tag transactions and view results in graphical format (see screenshots below).

According to the FAQ, each transaction can have up to five tags. And each user can create up to 200 unique tags to apply to transactions.

Significance: Combined with the categories automatically assigned to each transaction, American Express is now offering basic PFM services. Although a little clunkya three-click process is required to add a tagit’s a nice addition and something every online banking service should support. 

How it works
1. Click the “Add Tags to Transactions” link on the right side of the Statements & Activity area (below):

American Express online account managment with tagging function

2. Select a transaction(s) and apply an existing tag or create a new one, then click the Apply Tag button (lower right):

Transaction tagging at American Express

How it looks
After apply the tag “Personal,” it now shows up in the transaction listing:

American Express online transactkion listing showing user generated "tag"

Once tagged, users can view transactions by tag categories:

American Express view my tag

Or view graphs by tag:

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Note:
1. The example shown is for a Business Gold account. I’m not sure how long it’s been available. The first mention I could find about it via Google was Nov. 2010, so we’ll go with that until someone chimes in with better info. 
2. For more on online personal financial management (OFM/PFM), see our Online Banking Report.

With the Launch of Foursquare-powered Social Currency, American Express Now Has 7 iPhone Apps

In the spring, we predicted that 10 to 15 years from now there would be tens of thousands of iPhone apps from financial institutions alone (note 1). Our reasoning: Many (most?) larger FIs would have more than one app, perhaps dozens. At that time, nine financial institutions (note 2) were tied for most-prolific app deployers, each with two iPhone apps.

imageToday, I found out that American Express has blown that record away. With the release this week of a youth-oriented Foursqure-powered app, Social Currency (app link), the card issuer now has seven apps available for the iPhone alone (but still none for the iPad).

AmEx iPhone lineup
Two are from American Express Publishing (making the comparison to other financial institutions a little unfair):

  • Best New Chefs
  • Eat and Drink

Two are published by other companies:

And finally, three more from core card-issuers:

  • American Express used to access most AmEx cards
  • OPEN Forum for small business clients
  • mobileXtend that can only be used by employees of corporate clients who have licensed this service option 

American Express has seven apps available for the iPhone
Note: Shown here in search via iPad (22 Sep 2010)

American Express has seven apps available for the iPhone

Notes:
1. See Online Banking Report: The Case for Mobile Banking (published March 2010)
2. See Online Banking Report: Mobile Banking and Finance Apps (published April 2010)

American Express Jumps on the Alt-Payments Bandwagon in a Big Way; $300 Million Acquisition of Revolution Money

image_thumb[9]Frankly, I haven’t got my head completely around the latest acquisition in the alt-payments space (and I’m not the only one). I know that it makes my analyst life more interesting, but not sure what it means to the competitive landscape. Scott Loftesness over at Glenbrook Partners has the best analysis I’ve seen (also read the comments).

I’ll break it down here. Revolution Money has two products:

1. RevolutionCard: Alt-payment card for use at the point of sale, both online and in-store.(see inset below from SeattleLuxe.com where RevolutionCard logo is right below Visa; full screenshot below). Unique PIN-based card with no account number or name (see below).

2. Revolution MoneyExchange: A person-to-person payment service.

image_thumb[2]Neither product appears to be very large. In the Q&A of the announcement webcast (press release), Revolution Money chairman Ted Leonsis said the company had signed 8,000 customers per day during a 90-day marketing test about a year ago. In total, it registered about 400,000 consumers (note 1). They also said they’d built merchant acceptance to about 1 million locations.  

The company declined to disclose the number of cardholders, but mentioned that each of its dozen marketing partnerships had brought in two or three thousand good cardholders. Leonsis said that given the current credit environment, they elected not to expand the cardholder portfolio, instead “doubling down” on platform features, such as ATM acceptance (note 2). 

But according to traffic figures from Compete, few Revolution Money customers were actively using its services. The P2P service, MoneyExchange, was the most-visited of the company’s three sites with about 20,000 unique visitors last month, but that was down from 70,000 a year ago (during the marketing test). On the other hand, the Revolution Card volume was similar, just under 20,000, but up more than 50% year-over-year (see chart from Compete below).

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 Compete: 18 Nov 2009, link

American Express opportunities
On the call (replay here through next week), American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault outlined seven opportunities it would pursue when the transaction closes early next year. Notably absent, person-to-person payments:

1. Reloadable prepaid products for new segments

2. Compete with other alternative payment companies (aka PayPal)

3. Payment products in social media services

4. Mobile payment offerings

5. International markets

6. Offer through banks that issue American Express cards

7. Pin-based debit offerings

During Q&A, Chenault emphasized how the acquisition was all about getting the Revolution Money platform/engine to allow AmEx to do things faster and for a lower cost. There was little talk of RM’s brand, customers, or merchant base. The biggest discussion, during Q&A, was about reloadable prepaid cards.

My take: American Express purchased a platform they hope will allow it to get various new features/products to market faster and at lower costs to help head off total online-POS domination by PayPal. In addition, it acquired a proven team and management duo, and kept the whole works out of the hands of potential competitors such as Discover Card, Barclays, and others. While no one on the outside can understand the assumptions in the make vs. buy analysis, given its track record, American Express should be able profit from this $300 million IT investment. 

Online cards are sprouting new payment options
SeattleLuxe offers ten choices plus a link to pay by check (18 Nov 2009)

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Notes:
1. This is a registered user count, not necessarily a user of the service. Many of the new customers came for the $25 signup bonus or just to kick the tires. There was no cost or obligation to register.
2. On the call, Revolution Money said that 80% of ATMs accept their card.