The Definitive Guide to Credit Card Surcharging

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1 The Definitive Guide to Credit Card Surcharging (for Merchants) Merchant surcharging made easy.

2 American merchants pay the highest merchant fees in the world, fees that are many times higher than the fees paid by merchants in most other developed countries. Last year alone, U.S. merchant s paid more than $45 billion in merchant fees. And despite technological advancements that have led to decreased processing costs, merchant fees have continued to rise. A Federal Reserve Board article analyzed interchange fees (which form the basis of Visa s and MasterCard s merchant fees) on a $40 purchase. The graph shows that since 2001, interchange fees have more than doubled for many card products. The average credit card transaction costs business s today somewhere between 2.5% to 4% per transaction. Multiply that by dozens, hundreds or thousands of transactions a day, and you ve got a problem. These merchant fees directly cut into business s profit margins. For many merchants, merchant fees are the second-highest operating expense behind labor costs. It s hard enough without these fees for a small business to remain profitable in today s competitive environment. So what can merchants do in the face of these ever escalating merchant fees? Can you refuse to accept credit cards altogether? Unfortunately, that s not feasible for most merchants. Could you raise your prices to cover the merchant fees? Most merchants do this, but it s not fair to your customers who use cheap forms of payment (e.g. cash or checks) because then they end up paying the merchant fees. 2

3 The average credit card transaction costs business s today somewhere between 2.5% to 4% per transaction. Multiply that by dozens, hundreds or thousands of transactions a day, and you ve got a problem. These merchant fees directly cut into business s profit margins. For many merchants, merchant fees are the second-highest operating expense behind labor costs. It s hard enough without these fees for a small business to remain profitable in today s competitive environment. So what can merchants do in the face of these ever escalating merchant fees? Can you refuse to accept credit cards altogether? Unfortunately, that s not feasible for most merchants. Could you raise your prices to cover the merchant fees? Most merchants do this, but it s not fair to your customers who use cheap forms of payment (e.g. cash or checks) because then they end up paying the merchant fees. 3

4 Enter credit card surcharging. Over the last decade, several legal battles have waged on behalf of merchants against the credit card giants. The recently won result is that merchants can now recover merchant fees by charging credit card-using customers an extra fee for credit card transactions. 1 1 The following nine states currently have laws prohibiting credit card surcharges: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Texas. New York s no surcharge statute was just declared unconstitutional by a federal judge and is no longer enforceable. The other states statutes also face constitutional challenges. 4

5 What is Credit Card Surcharging? The term, credit card surcharging, is still not well known. Maybe it s because the practice is so new and very few merchants are doing it. Maybe it s because the word surcharge has a negative connotation, and is often dismissed by many merchants as anti-consumer. In reality, surcharging isn t anti-consumer at all. It s simply transparent pricing. Surcharging allows merchants to set their prices based on their costs. A surcharge is an extra fee. A credit card surcharge (sometimes dubbed a checkout fee ) is an extra fee charged to the customer at the time of purchase to cover the merchant s cost of processing the card. So, surcharging allows merchants to pass on credit card processing fees to the customer, if the customer chooses to buy something with a credit card. 5

6 The typical credit card transaction goes like this: Customer pays with credit card Total principal is deposited into your account Service fee (about 3%) is collected from processor When a surcharge is assessed, it looks more like this: + $ Customer pays with credit card Total principal + surcharge fee is deposited into your account Service fee (about 3%) is collected from processor 6

7 Why Credit Card Surcharge? There s really one answer here: to boost your profit margins overnight. By passing along merchant fees to credit-card using customers, merchants save money. When confronted with a credit card surcharge, some consumers pay the surcharge. Here the merchant benefits because the consumer is paying the merchant fee. Other consumers will prefer to avoid the surcharge and will use another form of payment, like cash, checks and debit. Again, the merchant benefits because cash, checks and debit are far cheaper to accept than credit cards. 7

8 The Battle Over Surcharging While the legal battles over surcharging against Visa and MasterCard reached a conclusion of sorts in early 2013, the war over surcharging has raged in courtrooms and legislative houses across the country for the better part of 40 years, largely unknown to most business owners and merchants. For decades, the credit card companies have been dead set against surcharging. They ve spent millions of dollars to lobby legislators and legal fees to fight tooth-and-nail to maintain rules that keep merchants from applying a surcharge to credit card transactions. Why are they so opposed to surcharging? Well, it s because surcharges incentivize consumers to use cheaper payment forms like debit, cash or checks. And credit card companies don t like to lose business to cheaper payment forms. Not so obvious to many people, though, is that the nation s leading consumer advocacy groups have voted on the side of surcharging. Consumer groups, such as the United States Public Interest Research Group, the National Consumers League and the National Association of Consumer Advocates have all fought for a merchant s right to surcharge. Their position: rules prohibiting credit card surcharging lead to higher retail prices. Why? Because if merchants can t charge more for credit card transactions, then they have no choice but to raise their retail prices across the board to cover the merchant fees. As a result, non-credit purchasers end up subsidizing credit card purchasers. According to the Federal Reserve, the average cash purchaser subsidizes the cost of credit cards by an average of $2,188 per year, and this is disproportionately paid by poor households. 8

9 Common Misconceptions About Credit Card Surcharging Because surcharging is brand new, there are a lot of misconceptions about the practice out there in the marketplace. Here are a few of those myths: Some customers will react negatively to being surcharged and will leave the store. This is a legitimate concern and should not be taken lightly. Credit card surcharging is brand new and few US consumers have experienced it. However, real world experience in other countries, like Australia, shows that most customers either pay the surcharge or they use a different payment form that doesn t incur a surcharge. A recent CreditCards.com survey showed that 65% of Americans who use credit cards said they would pay another way if any fee was charged. This data shows that in the face of a surcharge, the majority of consumers switch to cash or debit cards to avoid the extra fee. There is very little evidence of lost sales. Customers won t understand why they are being surcharged. Consumers understand that it is costly for merchants to accept credit cards. And consumers are used to businesses passing along their costs. Think parking at a hotel or WIFI on an airplane. 9

10 Common Misconceptions About Credit Card Surcharging (cont.) Merchants will have to switch to a merchant processor that specializes in surcharging to be in compliance with the Visa and MasterCard rules on surcharging. This is most likely true because very few merchant processors have the technology in place to provide merchants with compliant surcharging solutions. The new credit card company rules require modifications to point-of-sale hardware and processing platforms. Switching processors doesn t have to be a difficult process though. In fact, it s quite easy, so long as you are not locked into a long-term agreement with your current processor, switching services isn t difficult. Merchants will have to retrain their staff to implement credit card surcharging. Yes, it can be quite costly to retrain a staff on a new process. But so long as the merchant processor has the appropriate point-of-sale technology, surcharging will be handled automatically by the terminal and retraining will be unnecessary. 10

11 Australia: A Case Study for Credit Card Surcharging The good news is that merchants who are thinking about implementing a surcharge program have some real world experience to look to. Merchants down-under figured out this surcharging thing a while ago. Australia began allowing surcharging in 2003, but it took some time for the practice to catch on. Initially, surcharging started in hotels, airlines and taxis. But when it spread to the retail sector, it really spread. By 2010, more than 40% of merchants imposed a surcharge for credit card use. Some may disagree, but it seems unlikely that so many Australian merchants would surcharge if it wasn t good for their businesses. True, Australia isn t exactly the US, but Australia s experience with surcharging is quite instructive for US merchants. Although Australia s economy is 5 times smaller than the US economy, the two economies are quite similar. It s only a matter of time before US merchants start surcharging in big numbers. 11

12 Do-It-Yourself Surcharging? If you re thinking of surcharging on your own starting tomorrow, you might want to think again. It s not quite as simple as that. You could step on a couple landmines if you re not careful. Several of the new surcharging rules require changes to point of sale terminals and the processing platforms that run credit card transactions on. Some examples: 1 Sales receipts. Visa and MasterCard rules require that for surcharged transactions the sales receipt must show the surcharge amount as a separate line item. Most processors don t offer point of sale terminals that have this functionality. You could always use handwritten receipts and pencil in the surcharge line, but for most businesses that would be incredibly inefficient. 2 Debit transactions. You can t apply a surcharge to debit card transactions. This also extends to prepaid, gift and signature debit cards. But how can sales clerks identify quickly at the time of purchase whether a surcharge can be applied? Doing this manually leaves too much margin for error. It s best to use a POS terminal that detects in real-time if a card is a debit card or credit card based on the bank identification number on the card. 3 Processing fields. Here it gets a little more technical. Visa and MasterCard rules also require that for surcharged transactions, the surcharge amount be transmitted in distinct authorization and clearance fields. This is something your processor has to handle. Of the eight major processors today, only one (TSYS) has fully introduced the new fields. 12

13 Do-It-Yourself Surcharging? (cont.) So while it s tempting to start surcharging on a do-it-yourself approach, it s better to use a proven surcharging system instead of relying on manual processes. The margin for error here creates too much risk for your business. Luckily, there are a few processors on the market who are ahead of the curve on this. They have sophisticated surcharging solutions that automatically apply the right charges at the right time. They make sure you re not assessing surcharges on debit cards or prepaid cards, and that you re not charging above your actual credit card processing cost. These services also help you meet the necessary disclosure requirements. They send you signage you can put in your store to let customers know about your surcharging policy. And, as mentioned, they will provide a point-of-sale terminal that makes sure your sales receipts clearly reflect those charges. Your surcharge-friendly merchant processor is also tasked with staying up on the latest changes in state laws and regulations around surcharging. And that is no task you would want to take on yourself. It requires continuous monitoring, and making changes where necessary to signage, sales receipts and hardware. The paint is barely drying on these new rules as it is, and some industry players aren t yet on board. For example, American Express has not yet changed its rules, so if you accept Amex, you cannot currently implement surcharging unless you stop accepting all debit cards. 13

14 Conclusion Deciding whether or not to begin surcharging your credit-card-paying customers is no easy decision. You have to weigh each pro and con carefully, and take into account the current state of your business. And the services out there that currently offer this solution in the U.S. are few in number. But this may just be one of the biggest interrupters in merchant processing in years, something that could change the credit card industry for years to come. Only time will tell as more U.S. retailers start testing the surcharging waters. 14

15 About PassThrough PassThrough is one of the first providers of surcharging merchant processing solutions. We provide an out-of-the-box surcharging solution that allows retailers to be up and surcharging in a matter of days not weeks, not months. When you sign up, we ship you a free VeriFone terminal that automatically detects and applies the correct surcharge on your purchases. All you need to do is plug it in to an Ethernet jack. We ll also send the appropriate signage you can put up in your store to notify customers of your surcharging policy, along with a helpful question-and-answer handout sales clerks can use to explain the new policy. All in all, there is almost no training and very little set-up. It s time to start surcharging now. 270 Lafayette Street New York, NY passthrough.net 15

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