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Wal-Mart unveils pilot program to allow shoppers on food stamps to order groceries online

  • Wal-Mart will allow food stamp recipients to order groceries online and pickup at five stores in the U.S.
  • The EBT cards cannot be used online, but Wal-Mart will verify benefits and accept payment when the items are picked up at the store.
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Wal-Mart said Tuesday it is removing a hurdle that had long prevented food stamp recipients from using its online grocery shopping platform.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, requires that customers using electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, pay for their purchases at the "actual time and place" of a sale.

At limited locations, Wal-Mart allows shoppers using EBT to order items through its online grocery pickup platform, then pay in person when they pick up their purchases at stores.

"Access and convenience have long been a part of who we are," Mike Turner, vice president of Wal-Mart's e-commerce operations, said in a blog posted on the company's website.

"Convenience shouldn't be dictated by the way you pay," Turner said.

Currently, Wal-Mart offers the EBT option for online grocery pickup at one store in the Houston area and four stores near Boise, Idaho. The company said it plans to bring the service to more markets "through the holiday season and beyond."

About 44 million individuals benefit from food stamps in the U.S. today, according to the USDA, and in 2016 supermarkets and superstores redeemed 81 percent of all SNAP benefits.

To be sure, other grocers are also experimenting with EBT cards and online ordering. As the idea of ordering groceries in advance online, then later picking items up on the way home from work or from school, becomes more appealing to shoppers, every retailer wants a share of the market.

FreshDirect, a separate grocery delivery service, has tested a pilot program in New York's Bronx neighborhood, for EBT-dependent shoppers. This particular program evolved in response to the USDA selecting a handful of retailers in January to test online ordering and payment by SNAP participants. Amazon was also on the initial list, but Wal-Mart was not.

Since then, the big-box retailer has been added to the SNAP online purchasing pilot, which now includes eight retailers and will launch in early 2018.

Other grocers are working to expand access as well. Harris Teeter, which is owned by Kroger, says on its website that it will "accommodate" those customers that wish to use EBT ordering through ExpressLane, its online shopping service.

North Carolina-based Lowes Foods has a similar message on its website, where it promises to accommodate customers who go inside stores to make their selections and pay at that time.

Wal-Mart has promised to treat those shoppers using EBT cards no differently than other customers picking up groceries at kiosks in the parking lot. A store associate brings a tablet out to the customer's car, verifies the SNAP information, and sends him or her on the way.

Wal-Mart just earlier this month announced it was planning its 1,000th online grocery pickup location in Amazon's backyard of Seattle. Meanwhile, Amazon has been experimenting with its new purchase in Whole Foods, slashing prices across the store.