DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Increasingly these days a trip to the store might spare you a trip to the bank. Retailers are stocking more and more financial products - mortgages, loans and the like. In today's business bottom line, NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports that big box stores are trying to get money to people who can't use banks or want to avoid them altogether.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Costco may be best known for pallets of bottled water or bulk toilet paper that can last a family an entire year. But earlier this year, it also added mortgages to its growing array of financial offerings. Costco's not actually making the loans. Rather, it refers customers to its partner banks with whom it has negotiated discounts on closing costs and interest rates. Jay Smith is director of business and financial services for Costco. He says offering mortgages helps boost Costco's number one profit center: annual membership fees.
JAY SMITH: This is a great way to increase that value for membership, and that's why we're offering.
NOGUCHI: Costco, which also offers auto and home insurance, is just one of the latest entrants in the alternative consumer finance market, which some call shadow banking. For some retailers, like the Home Depot, branded credit cards and loan offerings are old hat. The home improvement chain established its credit and loan offerings almost at inception, because it sells lots of big-ticket items, especially after disasters like Hurricane Sandy, when there's sudden demand for new credit. Dwaine Kimmet is vice president of financial services for Home Depot. He says the company recently sweetened its offers in part because other sources of credit have dried up.
DWAINE KIMMET: And customers just can't get access to capital, because there's just not equity in their homes, in many cases.
NOGUCHI: Offering credit in-store also, of course, helps sales. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, partners with other companies to offer checking accounts, check-cashing, money orders, and a host of other services. Daniel Eckert is vice president of Wal-Mart. He says these alternative financial products appeal to a growing number of people.
DANIEL ECKERT: I think there's also a group of the population that engages in these services, frankly because their needs are not being met by, quote, mainstream financial services, and are unhappy about the value proposition or the costs and have found that this is a better way for them to manage and control their finances, and is more accessible to them.
NOGUCHI: In fact, in a recent report, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which regulates banks, said a growing number of Americans are going outside the mainstream banking system to manage their money. More than eight percent of U.S. households avoid traditional banks altogether. Norma Garcia is a senior attorney for Consumers Union. She says the fact that retailers see an opportunity in financial service products is a sign of the times.
NORMA GARCIA: And it really should be a wake-up call for the banks that they are losing customers and that they need to be more responsive to the needs of consumers.
NOGUCHI: Garcia notes the backlash against banks over increased overdraft fees and other charges. She says although mortgages through Costco and checking accounts through Wal-Mart may offer some lower initial fees, Consumers Union is still studying these products to see whether they too come with notable drawbacks.
GARCIA: What we have seen is that the protections vary considerably. It's not always apparent to the consumers what the risks might be with that product. In some cases there are activation fees, there are dormancy fees if you don't use the product for a certain period of time.
NOGUCHI: Just because they might appear at the checkout aisle, she says, mortgages and loans are not - and should not be - impulse buys. Yuki Noguchi, Washington.
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