Business

Walmart still on track to refuse Visa unless compromise reached

Walmart says it’s still on track to stop accepting Visa credit cards at its Canadian stores, but one business expert believes the chain will reach a compromise with Visa.

Retail giant says 3 Thunder Bay, Ont., stores will decline Visa starting July 18

Walmart says it will start phasing out the acceptance of Visa credit cards, beginning in Thunder Bay on July 18. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

​The clock is ticking on Walmart's pledge to stop accepting Visa cards at its Canadian stores. The retail giant confirmed that starting on July 18, customers will no longer be able to use the credit card at its three locations in Thunder Bay, Ont.

But the Visa ban may never come to your neighbourhood Walmart, a business and economics expert tells CBC News.

Carleton University professor Ian Lee believes the retailer is conducting a slow, strategic rollout because it expects to reach a compromise with Visa — long before Walmart has to drop the credit card from all its Canadian stores.

"It's very deliberate, it's very calculated," says Lee. "They're playing a high-stakes game of chicken."

What follows Thunder Bay?

Walmart announced on June 11 that "unacceptably high fees" for credit card transactions had prompted it to stop accepting Visa cards.

Beyond the Thunder Bay dates, the U.S. retailer would not say when it plans to drop the credit card from the rest of its more than 400 Canadian locations. Nor would it say if it has any plans to prevent customers from shopping with Visa online.

On its website, Walmart tells cyber-shoppers that Visa is accepted and there is no warning of an impending change.

When asked by CBC News what it plans to do about accepting Visa online, a Walmart spokesperson declined to "speculate on future business decisions."

Lee believes the retailer is implementing the ban slowly and starting in a smaller city like Thunder Bay for good reason: Visa is one of the most widely used credit cards in Canada, and preventing customers from shopping with it could affect sales.

Indeed, shoppers in Thunder Bay are already making noise about the plan to drop the credit card.

"It's just an inconvenience, really," says resident Christie Schottler. She has a Visa but not a MasterCard.

Schottler says Walmart's move could change her shopping habits. "There's other places around that sell the same stuff," but that accept Visa, she says.
Walmart says that 'unacceptably high' merchant fees has prompted it to stop accepting Visa cards. (Danny Johnston/Associated Press/Canadian Press)

Lee thinks Walmart's goal is to reach a compromise with Visa before it gets to the point where it drops Visa from a large number of its stores — especially high-volume urban locations.

So if the Thunder Bay move doesn't force Visa to make concessions on transaction fees, Lee predicts Walmart will simply move to round two. And that could involve additional lower-volume locations.

"I imagine that they would look for a few more stores in Saskatoon or Abbotsford or places that are not top-10 metropolitan areas to ratchet up the pressure on Visa," says Lee.

Visa's side of the saga

Soon after Walmart announced it was dropping Visa, the credit card company hit back, claiming the retailer was being disingenuous and unfair by using consumers as bargaining chips.

"Walmart is unfairly dragging millions of Canadian consumers into the middle of a business disagreement that can and should be resolved between our companies," Visa wrote in an open letter published in several Canadian daily newspapers.

But the credit card company told CBC News last month that it is eager to settle the matter with Walmart, one of Visa's most important clients.

"We absolutely want to be everywhere consumers want to shop and that includes Walmart stores," said Rob Livingston, president and country manager of Visa Canada.

"We are going to work to find a potentially reasonable solution with Walmart," he pledged at the time.

CBC News asked Visa for an update on its talks with Walmart. The company said it had nothing to report at this time.

But Professor Lee thinks Visa is eager to compromise "because this will be very humiliating from a marketing point of view to be locked out." He predicts there will be a resolution soon — at least before Christmas, when retail sales really heat up.

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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