There has been a lot of interest in merchant cash discounting and surcharging recently, and people seem to be confused about what is permissible and what is not. This brief overview begins with examples showing how cash discounting, surcharging and convenience fees affect merchants as well as consumers.
A consumer drives into a gas station and there is a sign showing two prices: one for cash and one for credit. When they use a credit card, they pay the higher price. This is cash discounting.
A consumer goes to a local merchant and there is a sign saying if they pay with a credit card, they will be charged an extra fee equal to what the merchant pays to have the transaction processed as a credit card sale. That is surcharging.
A consumer calls the city to pay a parking ticket. The city says they only accept cash or checks, but the consumer can call their payment processing company and pay over the phone with a credit card for an additional $12 fee. This is a convenience fee.
How Expensive Are Credit Card Processing Fees?
A merchant will pay the card brands between 1 – 4 percent to process credit card payments, thus cutting into their profit margins.
Some businesses operate on a one or two percent net margin (gas stations, grocery stores, new car dealers) and they need relief from interchange fees.
In Europe, merchants pay about a third of what their U.S. counterparts pay to accept credit cards. The U.S. baseline interchange fee is 1.75 percent while in Europe it is .52 percent.
Surcharging is common in Australia — 60 percent of large merchants pass on a credit card fees and so do 41 percent of all merchants.
Are Cash Discounting Programs Legal?
Cash discounting is not prohibited anywhere in the U.S., but the merchant must hang signage that clearly displays the credit price next to the discounted cash or debit price. Furthermore, the discount is taken from the regular price of the item, and does not include an additional fee or surcharge that is removed when the customer pays with cash or debit card.
The Durbin amendment (part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act) states businesses are permitted to offer a discount to customers as an incentive and encourage them to pay by alternative methods other than a credit card (typically cash or check) to receive a discount at the time of sale. There must be a clear receipt detailing the cash discount amount and the customer should be notified in advance (e.g. “Would you like to save 75 cents by paying with cash?”).
Consumer and Merchant Reactions to Cash Discounting
Consumers seem to understand the cash discounting approach and are generally okay with it because they believe they are saving money. It is not just small dollar transactions either; my dentist has a sign in his office stating, “Ten percent discount if paid by check or cash.”
For example, a retailer with monthly revenue of $15,000 who institutes a cash discounting program might see annual savings of around $5,000. This is significant for a small merchant and would be too important to pass up because the charges are a direct hit to the bottom line.
On the other hand, consumers are not so sanguine about being told they will be charged an extra fee for using a credit card. In fact, people with rewards cards count on earning and using those points, and they are not going to be happy about learning they need to pay additional fees to get them. That is why they pay a hefty annual fee for rewards cards in the first place.
For this reason, it appears large retailers will likely avoid surcharging, and that initially, it will be smaller local merchants who do this. Large retailers will figure out other ways to avoid interchange fees, most likely with loyalty and rewards programs linked to a bank account for payment, but that has been a long time coming.
In the U.S., 40 states allow surcharge fees for credit card transactions, but not for debit cards, international cards, or prepaid cards. Merchants can surcharge up to the amount they are actually charged to process credit card transactions (i.e. the gross amount, including taxes and shipping).
More About Convenience Fees
Regarding convenience fees, Visa rules say this is allowed if the payment takes place on an “alternate payment channel” (e.g. telephone or online), the customer is informed of the fee ahead of time, and the merchant charges a flat rate (i.e. not a percentage of the transaction). This scenario usually takes place with a utility company, governmental entity, or a merchant who bills consumers directly. Along these lines, the merchant can also legally refuse to take a credit card below a minimum purchase amount, typically ten dollars.
Service fees are collected by the technology provider, which then pays off the credit card charges on behalf of the merchant. This approach removes the need for merchants to have complicated back-end accounting or complex statements.
Advantages of Paying with Cash or Checks
It should be obvious that one way to avoid surcharges is to pay with cash or checks. This is really not a hardship for most people and everyone likes to save money.
Of course, you can always “just say no” and walk out of the store, but most consumers would be reluctant to do this if they really wanted something that the merchant has for sale. They can also try negotiating with the merchant. This works fine outside of the U.S., but most American consumers are not inclined to do that.
A big advantage for the merchant is that when consumers pay with cash, they get the money now, whereas they would have to wait two days after a credit card transaction. Checks are also fast. A check deposited today with mobile deposit capture or remote deposit capture means good funds are deposited into merchant accounts the next business day.
Other Factors Affecting Merchants
Card-not-present merchants (web and telephone) have also been stressed while trying to eliminate credit card fraud, which has been rampant in web transactions.
For example, consumers engaging in “friendly fraud” result in merchants being penalized with chargebacks. This happens when consumers simply don’t like the item or don’t really want it for one reason or another. Rather than call the merchant or send it back, they just tell their bank that they didn’t get what they ordered and the bank does a chargeback.
This reaction results in some online clothing merchants suffering losses at around 10 percent of gross volume. When the items do come back, they cannot be resold and have to be liquidated for pennies on the dollar. This is a nightmare for the merchant.
On the other hand, surcharging has a high ROI for the merchant. There are few lost customers, but it makes good sense for small merchants.
Merchants Continue to Benefit from Check Payments
Another thing that makes good sense for high dollar sales (e.g. over $500) is to ask consumers to pay with checks and have them guaranteed by CrossCheck. Just think about this for a minute.
For a $1,000 dollar payment, the merchant is going to pay between $25 – 30 in fees to take a credit card and they still have the specter of a chargeback down the road. If CrossCheck guarantees the check, they will pay less than $10 and they have finality of payment.
What about new car dealerships?
A new car dealer has a gross margin of less than two percent. Dealers are accustomed to accepting checks in the thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars. This is why many (including the largest dealership in the nation) rely on CrossCheck to guarantee their checks and why some use CrossCheck’s Multiple Check to hold checks for future deposit (typically 30 days). Multiple Check is a win-win all around.
Consumers do not need to pay extra fees while the dealers minimize their payment acceptance costs and can sleep at night knowing they will be paid. Whenever the payment amount is high, the cost of payment becomes an important part of the merchant’s expenses, and CrossCheck is here to help manage that budget to a predictable and satisfactory target.
Download our free guide to learn how Multiple Check can help your business increase sales and mitigate risk while saving time and money.