The battle between merchants and banks over interchange fees took a step out into the spotlight in the last few weeks, when retailers gained the right to begin collecting a surcharge from consumers who pay for their purchases with credit cards.
This new right came as part of a disputed settlement reached last year to an antitrust lawsuit filed by retailers and merchant groups against the major card issuers.
Although several retailers are opposing the settlement, one of its terms took effect at the end of January: Retailers in 40 states can begin adding a surcharge of a few percentage points to purchases made with credit cards. The other 10 states currently prohibit the practice.
Several retailers — including West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee and Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer — quickly made it clear that they had no intention of charging their customers such fees. In addition, the National Retail Federation issued a statement explaining that its members had not shown any inclination to add a credit card surcharge.
“The ridiculous concept that merchants will start surcharging on any widespread basis is propaganda being spread by the card industry in an attempt to divert attention from their skyrocketing swipe fees,” Mallory Duncan, senior vice president and general counsel at NRF, said in the statement.
The consensus seems to be that few retailers would want to charge their customers a fee for using credit cards, for competitive reasons, but some might consider it as a way to offset the average 2% — sometimes much higher — interchange fee they currently pay each time they accept a payment by credit card.
Read more: Hy-Vee Addresses Credit Card Surcharge
The key word in Duncan’s statement was “propaganda.”
The card issuers — through the Electronic Payments Coalition — were quick to warn the public about retailers’ scary new powers, painting the merchants as the big, greedy bad guys out to rip off consumers. That’s a theme that’s been recurring in the consumer communications from banks and the card companies as retailers have chipped away at the monopolistic and opaque interchange-fee system.
It’s a tactic retailers need to be wary of, especially with an issue as complicated as interchange fees. Consumers don’t really want to know about all the interchange headaches retailers have had to cope with. They just need to be reassured — perhaps more than ever — that their supermarkets are looking out for their best interests.
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