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SAN FRANCISCO/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – At 11 p.m. on the aftermost day of the month, shoppers army to the aing Walmart. They amount their carts with aliment and domiciliary items and delay for the midnight hour. That’s aback aliment brand credits are loaded on their cyberbanking allowances alteration cards.

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Clothing items apparent for auction at a Walmart Supercenter in American Canyon, California in this September 30, 2009 book photo. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith/Files

“Once the alarm strikes midnight and EBT cards are charged, you can see our after-effects alpha to beat up,” says Tom Schoewe, Wal-Mart Aliment Inc’s arch banking officer.

As aliment stamps become an added accustomed bill in a disturbing U.S. economy, they are dictating changes in how alike the better retailers do business.

From Costco to Wal-Mart, abundance chains are rethinking years of activity as they watch admired barter lose jobs and about-face to this benefit, the stigma of which is dematerialization not aloof in society, but in accumulated America.

Besides staffing up for the fasten in shoppers on the aboriginal day of the month, retailers are adjusting aback and what they stock, afterlight point-of-sale systems to acquire aliment stamps and alive amplification affairs to focus on lower-income shoppers.

Take Costco Wholesale Corp, a barn club abettor that caters to boilerplate assets Americans who charge pay $50 a year to boutique in its stores. Nudged forth by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who threatened acknowledged action, Costco began accepting aliment stamps at a few New York aliment in May. It now affairs to bright the payments in all of its 413 locations in the United States and Puerto Rico.

“Our appearance was … we would not get a lot of aliment stamps because our affiliate on boilerplate is a little added upscale,” Costco Arch Banking Administrator Richard Galanti said in October. “Well, I anticipate that was apparently a little bit aloof on our part.”

As of September, a almanac of added than 37 actor bodies were enrolled for the government benefit, federal admiral told Reuters, an access of about 35 percent aback the U.S. slid into recession at the end of 2007.

An estimated one in eight Americans depends on the account to buy food. With the nation’s unemployment in bifold digits, added bodies are accustomed to enroll. By some government estimates, up to 16 actor bodies who are not accepting aliment stamps today could qualify.

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For a clear on growing aliment brand use, bang link.reuters.com/huq47g

What’s more, unemployed Americans are award that it takes best and best to get work. This suggests that aliment stamps will comedy a bigger role over the aing few years, not aloof for people, but for aliment in charge of customers, according to interviews with retail executives, economists, federal and accompaniment admiral and account recipients.

“It is a actual important and added important antecedent of acquirement for the … supermarkets and aliment that acquire been accustomed beyond the country to action those benefits,” Kevin Concannon, U.S. undersecretary of agriculture, said in an account this month.

Aliment acquire little best but to respond. And they are.

In the budgetary year that concluded in September, 193,753 U.S. retailers accustomed aliment stamps, 17 percent added than the aforementioned aeon two years earlier. “For some chains… it’s 10 to 12 percent of their revenues,” Concannon said. “Depending on how poor the breadth may be, it may alike be higher.”

Tellingly, cyberbanking allowances alteration (EBT) affairs candy by retailers jumped 53 percent this year on a same-store sales base on Black Friday, the alpha to the U.S. anniversary arcade season, payments processor Aboriginal Abstracts told Reuters.

EBT includes aliment stamps and added government allowances like acting banknote abetment for beggared families and aliment abetment for new and assured mothers.

Thelma Zambrano wants to accumulate arcade at Costco, but can’t allow to renew her associates aback accident her chump account job at a bank. Now, she takes account aliment brand allowances of about $300 and helps others do the aforementioned at the Community Activity Partnership of Orange County, California, a nonprofit that helps poor bodies and area she now works.

“Before we fabricated anywhere from $55,000 to $65,000, and appropriate now… I’m advantageous if I accomplish $15,000 or $20,000,” said Zambrano, a 26-year-old mother of two from Santa Ana. She and her bedmate acquire cut spending to the cartilage and confused in with relatives.

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Best aliment brand recipients subsist on balance beneath the abjection band — almost $22,000 annually for a ancestors of four — and abounding new users are from the ranks of the alive poor.

Zambrano’s acquaintance illustrates how the recession additionally has beatific abounding middle-income families into bread-and-er freefall. Their affairs have, in turn, served as a wake-up alarm for aliment retailers that never anticipation their audience would depend on accessible assistance.

For her part, Zambrano let her mother apperceive that a new associates to Costco would accomplish a absolute anniversary gift. “She got the hint,” she said. “I’m abiding we’ll apparently get our associates for the aing year.”

Eighty-five percent of aliment brand allowances are adored at grocery and barn stores, and the affairs agency austere business for such retailers.

About $55 billion in aliment stamps may be adored this year, up from about $37 billion in 2008 and $31 billion in 2007, according to The Nilson Report.

The USDA expects to acquire added than $64 billion to absorb on aliment brand allowances in budgetary 2010, including about $6 billion in advancing bang money, up 14 percent from budgetary 2009.

Dollar General says food-stamp use accounts for about 4 percent of its sales, and is growing about 10 percent year over year.

Kroger Co Arch Executive David Dillon said aliment brand use at the better U.S. grocery alternation is at the accomplished levels that admiral at the aggregation can remember.

“You go aback to three or four years ago, the aliment brand aggregate we’re currently active is not absolutely double, but it’s a lot higher. So it’s actual significant,” Kroger’s Dillon said recently.

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Tina Contraeras is one of those shoppers who goes to Walmart on the aboriginal of anniversary month. She shops at the one in American Canyon, aloof alfresco California’s Napa Valley.

Unemployed and on affliction benefits, Contraeras, 45, has aegis of her grandchildren, ages 2 and 3. She has resorted to ambit the aboriginal of the ages on her agenda so that aback her grandchildren are hungry, she can calculation bottomward the canicule until they can acknowledgment to the grocery store.

“I acquire to accomplish a d out of it for the kids,” she said. She feels she has no added choice.

Technology is one acumen the food-stamp stigma is fading. While recipients already arise their cachet by affairs out beefy advertisement books at the checkout counter, today’s users are far beneath noticeable.

Allowances from the aliment brand program, now accepted as the Supplemental Nutrition Abetment Affairs (SNAP), and added types of government banking abetment are loaded assimilate EBT cards that can be swiped to accomplish a payment, aloof like a debit or acclaim card.

Like Contraeras, added food-stamp beneficiaries arise to decay little time cashing in their benefits. According to J.P. Morgan which administers EBT programs for added than 20 states, 85 percent of aliment stamps are depleted aural the aboriginal three canicule they are available.

Companies like Walmart and Kroger now allocution about a sales bang on those days, a abnormality that added than a decade ago aggressive a song by hip hop accumulation Cartilage Thugs-n-Harmony alleged “1st of tha Month.”

Abjection hit an 11-year aerial in 2008, the aforementioned year in which a government address showed that added than 49 actor Americans were at accident of activity hungry.

And recreating the jobs absent during a abatement doesn’t necessarily appear fast. It took about four years to achieve all the jobs absent during the 2001 recession, aback unemployment ailing at 6.3 percent, according to the Bread-and-er Policy Institute, a accelerating anticipate catchbasin in Washington, D.C.

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Assured the affliction this time around, retailers are aggravating to reposition their business for what they alarm a “new normal,” area jobs are scarcer, and added and added Americans depend on the government to accomplish ends meet.

Afterwards years of admiring college assets shoppers, civic chains are now seeing befalling in the low end of the market.

Supervalu Inc afresh arise affairs to accessible 50 new Save-A-Lot abatement aliment this year and to acquire addition 100 aliment in the activity for aing year. The additions will accompany its absolute cardinal of Save-A-Lot aliment to about 1,330.

It is advantageous for the action by halving its annual dividend.

Ancestors Dollar Aliment Inc, which sells best of its commodity for beneath $10, began realigning its business alike afore the downturn. It installed refrigerators and coolers in its stores, enabling it to advertise decaying aliment like milk and ogna meat, and upgraded its checkout arrangement to acquire EBT as payment.

To acquire aliment stamps, retailers charge advertise aliment in anniversary of four basic aliment groups: aliment and grains; dairy, bake-apple and vegetables; and meat, banty and fish. Or, at atomic 50 percent of the absolute sales in a abundance charge be from the auction of acceptable basic food, like flour, aliment or beef.

Dorlisa Flur, Ancestors Dollar’s arch affairs officer, says the store’s amount shoppers acquire been “under pressure” for years. She describes that amount applicant as a woman who earns beneath than $40,000 a year and lives paycheck to paycheck. This applicant was hit adamantine in 2005 aback gasoline prices acicular in the deathwatch of Hurricane Katrina. Then came a billow in aliment prices, a apartment apprehension and recession.

“When the accomplished apartment bazaar fell afar too, that absolutely collection her to angular on aliment stamps,” Flur said. “By accepting EBT, we were aperture up a allocation of the wallet we were not able to blow before.”

Best retailers are afraid to altercate how abundant money they acquire spent afterlight their point-of-sale, or POS, systems to acquire aliment stamps as payment.

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J.P. Morgan said that in an accomplishment to absolute costs for retailers as cardboard aliment stamps were phased out, EBT cards were advised to assignment off absolute alluring band technology.

“The amount for afterlight POS terminals was added than captivated by the accumulation from eliminating cardboard handling,” according to Christopher Paton, managing administrator in J.P. Morgan’s Treasury Services Accessible Sector Group.

Retailers could added than accomplish up for their investments if aliment brand ranks abide to swell, as expected.

There are currently 1.25 actor households accepting aliment brand allowances in California, and 1.22 actor households in Texas, according to the USDA. As of 2007, the latest year of accessible data, alone bisected of acceptable individuals in those states were enrolled to accept the benefits.

Abounding Californians are abashed by the appliance action or do not apprehend they are eligible, befitting aliment brand acceptance far beneath area it should be, said Alameda County Community Aliment Coffer agent Brian Higgins.

Calls to his aliment bank, beyond the bay from San Francisco, for emergency aliment advice acquire surged.

“In our aboriginal 13 years, we alone went over 1,500 (phone calls) in one ages twice,” he said. “We’ve gone over 3,000 (phone calls) for the fourth ages in a row and the numbers are activity up.”

The aliment bank, which runs a aliment brand beat program, tells callers that they ability authorize for the benefit.

Pamela Center, 48, angry to the Alameda Aliment Coffer for advice aback she active up for aliment stamps in November. Center, an in-home affliction provider, saw her account assets compress to about $410 from $1,500 afterwards she absent a client.

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She tries to amplitude her dollars by bistro at her parents’ abode or visiting aliment banks, but she was still not accepting abundant to accomplish it through the month. That ache led her to affected her own inhibitions and assurance up for benefits.

“With my pride, I was like, ‘I absolutely don’t appetite to do this,’ but if I don’t I will acquire annihilation larboard in my house,” she said.

Additional advertisement by Phil Wahba in New York; Editing by Jim Impoco, Michele Gershberg and Robert MacMillan

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