The news that retail giant Walmart is turning its attention to fintech is an impressive reminder of how the industry has grown. What began as a land of incumbents defending itself from a siege of digitally-savvy disruptors has become more of an Age of Exploration, in which companies large and small compete for slices of an increasingly valuable and growing market for digital financial services.
What is Walmart doing?
Walmart announced on Monday that it is building a fintech startup that will “develop unique and affordable financial products for Walmart employees and customers.”
“For years, millions of customers have put their trust in Walmart to not only save them money when they shop with us but help them manage their financial needs. And they’ve made it clear they want more from us in the financial services arena,” Walmart U.S. president and CEO John Furner said. “We’re thrilled to work with Ribbit Capital in a new venture to help us deliver innovative and needed options to our customers and associates – with speed and at scale.”
The new entity will be majority-owned by Walmart, and the company has previewed a handful of future board members: Furner and Walmart CFO Brett Biggs.
Why are they doing it?
Walmart already offers financial services to its customers in the form of products like its prepaid debit solution, the Walmart MoneyCard, as well as its Walmart Credit Card, check cashing, and money transfer services. The big box retailer also offers consumer financing alternatives like buy now pay later, courtesy of its partnership with Affirm (which went public this week).
Creating a fintech arm or subsidiary would enable the retail giant potentially to offer a wide variety of additional services ranging from investment and wealth management, to insurance, lending, and banking.
Who is helping them?
Collaborating with Walmart in this new venture is Ribbit Capital, the venture capital firm behind Robinhood, Affirm, and Credit Karma. Walmart, in its statement, described the new company as a “strategic partnership” with the Palo Alto, California-based venture capital firm. Founded in 2012 by Meyer Malka, Ribbit Capital focuses on investments in early-stage companies and has an extensive portfolio of investments in fintechs, in particular. These ranks include – in addition to the companies noted above – such innovative fintechs as Revolut, Gusto, Coinbase, and Wealthfront (all Finovate alums, by the way).
“Walmart has a relationship with millions of customers and associates built on trust, security and integrity,” Malka said. “When we combine our deep knowledge of technology-driven financial businesses and our ability to move with speed with Walmart’s mission and reach, we can create and deliver financial offerings that are second to none.”
What’s the upside?
Given the current climate, the tougher challenge may lie in making the argument against Walmart’s flirtation with fintech. Given Walmart’s size and popularity – the company serves more than 265 million customers in 11,400 stores around the world every week – the company is in as good a position as any other retailer – short of Amazon perhaps – to make an impact on fintech wherever it decides to land.
That said, consumer financing and payments both appear on the surface to be the easiest ways for a Walmart fintech arm to make the biggest difference fastest. With regard to payments, as Barron’s observed, Walmart could leverage its ownership of India-based Flipkart. In the review, Barron’s quoted Bank of America analyst Robert Ohmes highlighted the monetization opportunities in financial services as a potential way for Walmart to secure “long-term profitability.”
What are the risks?
On the other hand, Walmart will need to be wary of “diversifying away its edge.” John Zolidis, president of Quo Vadis Capital warns of a potential loss of focus should Walmart aggressively pursue business opportunities away from its “core competency.” Zolidis noted further that the company’s primary customers may not be the earliest adopters of digital financial services, pointing out that nearly 25% of Walmart’s customers do not have a bank account, and 50% lack access to credit.
Then again, these may be exactly the sort of problems for which Walmart’s new fintech venture is a kind of solution.