Many retailers say 'no thanks' to fees

Posted: February 05, 2013

Gretel-Ann Fischer already has told customers that she won't accept credit cards for purchases under $5 at her Vermont bakery. The last thing she wants to do is alienate them by passing along the transaction fee she must pay when they use plastic.

Fischer is one of thousands of retailers in 40 states who now have the right to charge customers the fees that come along with using credit cards. They won that right as part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by merchants against Visa, MasterCard, and major banks that issue credit cards.

But many small retailers say customers will bolt if they tack on surcharges that could range from 1.5 percent to 4 percent.

"It's just not going to happen. It's hard enough to get them to accept the $5 minimum," says Fischer, who owns Cupps Cafe & Bakery in Winooski, Vt.

She imposed the minimum because of a 17-cent-per-transaction fee that's in addition to the 2.5 percent Visa and MasterCard charge for the entire purchase. Seventeen cents on a $2 cup of coffee was too much to absorb.

Credit-card transaction fees cost the bakery $10,000 a year, a big bite for a business that makes about $400,000 a year.

The surcharges result from July's settlement of a long-running federal antitrust suit. Before the deal, credit-card companies prohibited businesses from charging customers for the right to use plastic. The settlement allowed merchants to pass along fees effective Jan. 27.

Plaintiffs in the suit ranged from Leon's Transmission, a California auto-repair company with seven locations, to Payless ShoeSource, which has thousands of stores across the country. They claimed that Visa, MasterCard, and the banks conspired to fix fees on credit-card purchases.

The surcharges aren't something a retailer can slip in without telling customers - the agreement requires that customers be notified before and after purchases. That means visible signs at entrances and cash registers. Sales receipts must list the surcharge separately, and websites must notify online customers.

But the number of retailers that pass along the transaction fee is likely to be relatively small. Walmart and Target have already said they wouldn't do it. And under the agreement, a multistate retailer with stores in the 10 states where the surcharge is illegal can't impose it in states where it is.

So if a small retail chain with stores in New Jersey has just one store in New York, where the surcharge is prohibited, the chain also can't charge it in New Jersey. The surcharges also are illegal in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Texas.

The lawsuit's intent was to lower the transaction fees merchants pay, said Mallory Duncan, a senior vice president at the National Retail Federation, a trade group that is opposed to the settlement.

In the end, its terms created a dilemma: Retailers could go ahead and pass on the fees to shoppers, but by doing so they would risk angering customers. "That's exactly opposite where we want to be," Duncan said.

Another reason few retailers will pass along the fees, Duncan said: Under the agreement, those who also accept American Express would have to pass along fees to AmEx customers, as well. American Express prohibits its merchants from doing that.

"Customers are definitely going to tailor their spending to places that don't pass along the charge," said Angela Gianfrancesco, owner of Stella Blue Design, a jewelry store in Chicago. "Their repeat business and loyalty are more lucrative than what I would make passing that along."

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