Home / Credit News / Merchants see conundrum in credit card fee settlement

The recent $7.25 billion settlement between several major retail groups and the world's largest card payment processors may put small business owners in a tough situation when it comes to their new abilities.

As a result of the class action settlement between numerous merchant groups and Visa and MasterCard, merchants of all sizes can now charge consumers an additional fee for paying with a credit card, but that newfound capability is vexing to small business owners, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal. These fees are limited to whatever the merchant would pay in interchange fees for accepting a credit card transaction, and cannot be applied to debit, cash or check purchases, but create a dilemma for smaller companies for one very specific reason.

Even the smallest businesses that accept credit card purchases can lose tens of thousands of dollars per year in credit card interchange fees, and while the ability to offset those prices could make up those losses instantly, there may be more at stake, the report said. When a customer makes smaller purchases, the profits merchants make can be limited or even negated by these fees.

"We have people that will pay for a $1.50 soda on a credit card," Luan Schooler, owner of the Portland, Oregon, specialty foods store Foster and Dobbs, told the newspaper. "In those circumstances, we are losing money - or making so little, it wasn't worth selling it in the first place."

However, experts generally agree that not all companies will apply these fees to credit card purchases, and therefore small business owners risk driving customers who prefer to pay with credit to competitors, the report said. But the benefit of these fees comes not through what money they may be able to recoup - interchange fees usually run between 1 and 3 percent of the total purchase price - but rather as a result of the power it gives merchant groups in general.

Analysts believe that, essentially, the threat of increasing prices for credit card customers may be enough to persuade payment processors to lower swipe fees across the board, the report said. If even only a few companies start imposing these charges on consumers, that might be enough pressure to benefit the entire industry.

This settlement comes not long after another that allowed companies to remediate interchange fees in a different way: by giving discounts to customers paying with cash. Many merchants have raised prices to offset what they believed were unnecessarily high interchange fees, and by being permitted to offer discounts for cash, it was believed that the savings would be passed on to consumers. That proved not to be the case more often than not. Previously, both that practice and the one now allowed under the new settlement were prohibited by major credit card payment processors as a condition of allowing merchants to accept that type of transaction.