Business

2 months after first strike against Visa, Walmart mum on follow-up

Close to two months ago, Walmart said it was banning Visa from Canadian stores. Yet it has dropped the card in only one city. That leads some experts to conclude the Visa ban plan has fizzled.

Delay raises suggestions the retail giant may be close to backing down in fee dispute

Walmart stopped accepting Visa cards in Thunder Bay on July 18. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On June 11, Walmart launched a shocker when it made a bold pledge to stop accepting Visa at its more than 400 Canadian stores.

That left Canadians waiting and wondering when their Visa cards will be rejected at their neighbourhood Walmart.

But close to two months later, the retail giant has only made one small move: On July 18, it dropped the credit card from its three locations in Thunder Bay, Ont., whose population is slightly over 100,000.

Walmart announced the countrywide ban to protest what it calls Visa's "unacceptably high" merchant fees.

But the delay in any action beyond Thunder Bay leads some business experts to suspect that — with Visa not yet giving in — Walmart may be close to backing down.

"The game's kind of come to a sharp end," says marketing expert Lindsay Meredith. The Simon Fraser University professor believes Walmart has decided, "'Why don't we make a hasty retreat and let this one die?'"

But Walmart tells CBC News the battle is still on. It says it's moving forward with its national Visa ban — at some point.

"The change will [be] rolled out in phases across the country," said spokesman Alex Roberton in an email. "Dates have not yet been set."

Not going so well?

Meredith says Walmart could have dropped Visa from all its stores in one quick move if it truly wanted to.

"All you have to do is, you put a sign up on the front of each store saying, 'We ain't taking Visa. There, we made the change.'"

He believes Walmart chose a small region as a test market to see how customers react. "Thunder Bay is a nice little quiet way to test the waters a bit without getting nailed."
Walmart says it will roll out its Visa ban across Canada in phases. 'Dates have not yet been set,' said spokesman Alex Roberton. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Now that almost three weeks have passed since the Thunder Bay move, Meredith suspects that Walmart has crunched the numbers and doesn't like the results. "Translated, sales have dropped," he says.

Carleton University business professor Ian Lee agrees. "They got the data back and it was not good," he suggests. And that negative data, concludes Lee, "caused them to rethink and postpone a further rollout."

Visa as victor?

Lee says, as a result of Walmart's apparent retreat, "Visa is winning."

Meredith is also making an early call that Visa is the victor. He says the retail giant miscalculated, believing it could get the credit card company to bend by now.

"They're thinking that they're big enough that they could have got Visa to go along with the pressure, and Walmart misjudged."

Walmart is one of Canada's largest retailers, but Meredith points out that Visa is also a giant. The company says more than 17 million Canadians carry its credit card.

And Meredith believes Visa won't fold because it would set an ugly precedent. "You give a rate cut to Walmart, then you're going to be getting pressure from all kinds of other retailers in Canada for the same rate cut."

CBC News asked Visa Canada how talks with Walmart are progressing. The company said it has no updates to share at this time.

When Walmart dropped Visa in Thunder Bay, the credit card company stated that until there's an agreement, "We encourage shoppers to use their cards at the more than 5,200 stores in Thunder Bay that accept Visa."

Walmart buying time?

Not every industry watcher believes it's game over. Retail expert Janice Rudkowski suggests Walmart is simply buying time while it pores over the Thunder Bay data and decides its next move.

"There's a much bigger project in store for them if they were to roll it out," says the professor with the Ted Rogers School of Retail Management. "They're probably just taking the time they need to make sure they're doing the right thing."

Rudkowski adds this would be the first time Walmart would have data in Canada on dropping a credit card, so it would want time to carefully study the results.

CBC News in Thunder Bay polled Walmart shoppers informally and found mixed reaction to the Visa ban.

"We prefer to use our Visa, so it's disappointing, but we have other forms of payment," said customer Alicia Costanzo the day the ban took effect.  

"Maybe Visa was charging too much, is what we're hearing," said Julie Drewes. However, she suspects Walmart's battle with Visa is more than a dispute over merchant fees.

"I think eventually they're just going to want us to use their [card] and then they get the profits."

Walmart offers a branded MasterCard whose customers can earn rewards to redeem in-store products.

When asked when they would stop accepting Visa, a couple of Walmart cashiers in Toronto said they had no idea. But both offered information on how to get a Walmart MasterCard.

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