Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hidden Costs

Merchants pay a negotiated fee -- typically 1-3% for larger merchants and 3-6% for smaller merchants -- to process credit payments. They must also bear the cost of providing a point-of-sale solution to enable the acceptance of card transactions and other card services related expenses. Credit card issuers understand full well that if card holders were aware of and made to pay these additional costs with their purchases it would tend to discourage credit card usage. As a consequence, businesses who accept credit cards often must sign a "merchant agreement" or contract with the acquirer that stipulates that they are not allowed to offer different prices for card and non-card transactions (sometimes referred to as surcharging) despite the additional costs to the business for accepting the cards. The prohibition on surcharging or cash discounts is enforced by law in some countries, although some governments are beginning to lift this restriction (see below).

Some critics have observed that this results in what is effectively a hidden tax on all transactions conducted by merchants who accept credit cards since they must build the cost of transaction fees into their overall business expense. Furthermore, cash and other non-credit card using customers are in effect made to subsidize credit card user purchases. The cost of the convenience and protections enjoyed by card holders and the profits taken from transaction fees by the card industry (which has come to rely increasingly on this revenue stream over the years) is in part borne by the non-card purchaser. Critics further note that the customers most likely to pay in cash are probably the least able to afford the additional expense, the argument going that card holders are more likely to be affluent and non-card holders less so.

A counterargument is that there are also costs to the merchant in other forms of payment. For cash payments these include frequent trips to the bank or use of an armored delivery service, theft, and employee error, such that cash is actually not cheaper for the merchant than credit cards

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