"Western Union has been in urgent walk-in payments for quite some time," said David Shapiro, Senior Vice President, Payments Division at Western Union. "If I have a bill for my auto loan, I go into any retail Western Union location and give them cash, and we immediately transmit the data to the biller and you receive credit for the payment on the day that you made it. It's a same-day urgent payment product."
Western Union bolstered that product from a same-day product into one that also offers next-day or two-day payments. "So it gives them that option of saying this is not due as an urgent payment," Shapiro said. "I'm here to pay my auto loan urgently, but while I'm here why don't I pay my utility bill or my insurance premium as well? They can be a next-day or a two-day service. So it gives the consumer the option to do multiple payments."
According to the May 2011 Money Mindset Index (internal, quarterly surveys conducted by Western Union), consumers typically pay 10 primary bills monthly, with 1.6 percent of those 10 bills paid in person. That 1.6 percent of in-person payments are the ones consumers typically pay first because they are the most important. Paying those bills fast and in face-to-face transactions with Western Union agents is apparently also important.
"What we see and what we hear from consumers, there's a comfort in going and making this payment and have a retail agent hand you a receipt," Shapiro said. "It's really all about that certainty around the payment, and if I put it in the mail, it may get there Tuesday, it may get there Wednesday. But if I'm handed that receipt, I know that it's credited to my account today."
The Money Mindset Index also reported that 39 percent of consumers are having difficulty paying bills, while 37 percent are having trouble prioritizing bills, 33 percent are making minimum payments more often, 29 percent are waiting longer to pay bills and 20 percent are paying more bills past their due dates.
Shapiro believes the state of the economy underscores these numbers. "Consumers are telling us, 'We really have to do more prioritizing with our bills than we have in the past,'" he said.
In a July 2011 quarterly report, Western Union said it had 1.1 million prepaid cards in circulation. The company manages two types of open-loop, MasterCard Worldwide-branded prepaid cards: the MoneyWise card and the Gold Card, which offers rewards points. The agent locations across the United States also function as reload stations for the cards.
Michael Hafer, Vice President, Global Cards, Western Union, said walk-in bill pay users are also often Western Union prepaid card users. "Western Union has relationships with more than 10,000 billers, giving us the capability to allow consumers with a prepaid card to pay their bills directly from the card," he said.
"When we have engaged a customer, be it for bill pay or for any other type of transaction, our goal is to retain that customer and provide future solutions for their financial needs," Hafer added.
"For our agents, it's really about what they can do to make this a good experience for their customers," Shapiro said. "So how many more services can I offer to my customers at the courtesy desk. And what do they need? They probably need a prepaid card. They probably need bill payment capability. They need to send money to their family. So what are the services I can offer to my consumers because, while they're there, they'll probably buy a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread, too."
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