As of Sunday, retailers can now levy a surcharge on consumers who use credit to make their purchases. The surcharge, up to 4% of the transaction, has consumers up in arms. But should we worry that this is another profit grab? Not necessarily.
How the surcharge works
Credit card networks – Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover – charge retailers a fee every time a customer uses a plastic card bearing their logo. Debit cards command the lowest fees, while high-end rewards credit cards command the highest.
Retailers can now pass this charge through to customers, with caveats:
- The pass-through cannot be more than what the networks charge the retailer
- The surcharge cannot exceed 4%, even if the retailer pays more than that
- Some states prohibit credit card surcharges, so the new charge is illegal there*
How the surcharge came about
The reason that you may now pay an additional fee is that retailers – from mom and pop shops up to Target and WalMart – sued Visa and MasterCard for collaborating to set these fees artificially high. The fees – known as interchange – are often a large burden for small merchants.
As part of the 2012 settlement, ending an antitrust case that began in 2005, retailers can now pass this cost onto the consumers who incur them.
Few stores will actually implement surcharge
However, very few stores are likely to take advantage of this new surcharge:
- The cost of interchange is already baked into prices. Merchants have lived with swipe fee costs for years, so they are already reflected in current prices.
- Consumers prefer higher prices and no fees. Just as LL Bean and others offer free shipping but charge higher prices, consumers think more favorably of stores that offer one comprehensive price than a lower, more a-la-carte pricing style.
- Risk of backlash is greater than in 2005. With the rise of social media, the first store to levy a surcharge is likely to see a public, vocal consumer backlash reminiscent of Bank of America’s ill-fated debit card surcharge.
Why surcharges are more equitable than high prices
Currently – and as long as retailers include swipe fees in their prices – cash and debit users subsidize credit card users. We all have higher prices, but credit card users earn rewards, benefits, and flexibility in payment. This system is highly regressive, as credit card users tend to have higher incomes. A surcharge would actually help end this subsidy – but it’s unlikely to happen on a large scale.
States that ban credit card surcharges
- New York
Image courtesy of DomainShane.com.