Amex Updates Its Confusingly Similar Bluebird, Serve Apps

American Express© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Kobyakov released a major update to its Bluebird and Serve iOS apps yesterday to make them easier to use and perform better.

Bluebird and Serve are both digital banking solutions for Walmart customers. They both uses Elan Financial Services, based in Minneapolis, for its ATM network, and, frankly, offer remarkably similar services.

The new features in version 3.0.0.0 of the Bluebird app and 4.0.0.0 of Serve include:

  • See accounts and transactions in one place;
  • Transfer funds to the SetAside Account and sub-accounts;
  • Check Direct Deposit information;
  • Quickly add funds, pay bills and send/request money; and
  • Add checks with your mobile phone

American Express also claims that it “made the app[s] faster and more efficient.”

Interestingly, it does not appear that the app upgrades went as far as American Express implied it would. Buried in a footnote in the company’s second quarter earnings appendix, American Express said it would introduce more far-reaching functionality to Bluebird and Serve, which also (somewhat confusingly) is targeted at Walmart customers. Specifically Amex disclosed:

[The company] announced in June that free personal financial management tools will be added to American Express Serve and Bluebird in the summer of 2014, allowing customers to monitor spending by automatically sorting transactions into various categories (such as bills, shopping and transportation). Customers will also be able to create budgets, set spending limits and alerts, and set and track financial goals.

None of that budgeting-related functionality is in 3.0.0.0 or 4.0.0.0. And, as we all know, the summer is almost over. (I know, depressing.)

This upgrade, however, does reinforce the confusion between Bluebird and Serve, which both seem to be providing the same services, right down to the use of Elan’s ATM network. About the only difference we could find was Serve charges a $1 monthly fee, while Bluebird does not.

The confusion surfaced during Amex’s earnings conference call last week. An analyst asked Amex officials to explain the strategy behind Bluebird/Serve. Jeffrey C. Campbell, Amex’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, said it was a segmentation strategy:

If you draw an analogy to our card or credit business, we have many different products in all of the countries around the globe in which we do business because they all serve different target segments and we think there is tremendous value in having the right card for the right customer.

And so, I think Walmart, as they think about what they want to offer to their customers, similarly believes that there should be a range of choices and that different products will provide different sets of capabilities and features to customers and that choice is a good thing. And so we’re both – our philosophy and Walmart’s philosophy are quite aligned on this. To us, it seems very natural to put in the end the consumer in the drive seat so that they can make a choice.

In all deference to Mr. Campbell, we note that Serve is available not just through Walmart, but also through Safeway and Family Dollar (31,000 retail outlets in all), while Bluebird appears to be a product reserved for Walmart customers. And that might be the most significant difference of all between Bluebird and Serve.

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