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Merchants Seek Lower Credit Card Interchange Fees

Posted by: John Tozzi on October 07, 2009

Are American shoppers and businesses paying billions of dollars more than they should be to use credit cards? That’s the big question that the House Financial Services Committee will look at Thursday.

The issue: interchange fees, the roughly 2% of every credit card swipe that goes to the bank that issued the card. That’s a real cost for small merchants that do a lot of credit card sales, particularly in thin-margin businesses like grocery or convenience stores. (7-Eleven is lobbying aggressively on this issue.)

How much do interchange fees cost? $48 billion a year, according to the Merchant Payments Association, a coalition of mostly retail trade associations lobbying to restrict the fees. How much do merchants pay? To put that in perspective, Home Depot pays more in interchange fees than for employee health care. Some of those costs get passed on to consumers.

It’s not a black-and-white issue. I think opponents who call interchange “hidden fees” aren’t quite right. Credit cards provide a service (both to merchants and consumers) that someone needs to pay for. Card issuers say interchange fees fund rewards programs, protection against fraud, and other costs.

But interchange fees are the largest piece of the costs associated with accepting credit cards. Here’s a look at how the fees on a typical credit card transaction break down, according to Dan Price, founder of Seattle credit card processor Gravity Payments:

On average, 1.75% goes to the bank that issued the credit card; 0.1% goes to the network (Visa or MasterCard); and between 0.5% and 1% goes to the processor. [Update: A Visa rep wants me to clarify that the the 1.75% going to the bank is the interchange fee, and the 0.1% that goes to the network is a separate fee. If that wasn’t clear already, my apologies.] (Price says Gravity Payments, whose business model depends on holding onto customers longer than most processors, charges about 0.33% for processing.)

There’s not a lot of transparency about how these fees are calculated. From Floyd Norris in the NY Times last week:

How much less depends on what kind of business the store has. (Food stores pay smaller fees than clothing stores.) It depends on what kind of market power the store has. (Home Depot gets a bigger share than Fred’s Hardware.) It depends on whether the card is a credit or debit card. (Debit cards have lower fees.) It even depends on whether a credit card offers rewards. So when I use the Visa card that gives me airline miles, the merchant gets less than if I use a basic Visa card.

How opaque is it? You can look at the interchange rates for Visa and MasterCard. (The networks set the rates, even though the fees are paid to the banks that issue the cards.) The MasterCard document is 100 pages.

I’d like to hear from merchants on this one. Some retailers have even stopped accepting credit cards because of the fees, although that seems like a move that would cost more in lost sales than save in fees for most companies. How much do you pay in interchange fees? Does your company offer discounts for cash? If your interchange costs went down, would you lower prices for consumers? Let us know in comments below or on Twitter.

Reader Comments

Mitch Goldstone

October 7, 2009 10:52 PM

John - Thanks for your detailed Businessweek update on the issues affecting all merchants and consumers in the U.S. As the lead plaintiff in a merchant interchange antitrust class-action - litigating against MasterCard, Visa and its leading member banks (since 2005) - I have five years of detailed updates and commentaries on this multi-billion dollar issue at and regularly tweet at

Happy to share my experiences as a retailer and ecommerce business owner based in California.

Mitch Goldstone
President & CEO

Brian J. Donovan

October 8, 2009 06:37 AM

I believe you may be interested in the following article regarding the need for comprehensive credit card reform legislation.

Gidi Argov

October 8, 2009 10:35 AM

John - nicely put. Please note that credit card processing interchange fees finance the CREDIT provided by the issuing bank to the shopper. This is why Debit Cards cost less to the merchant - no credit is provided to the shopper...
You can find more info on:
Look for: "Credit Card Processing Fees – ridiculously expensive or surprisingly low and productive?"

Gidi Argov, Founder and CEO

Kevin Stecko

October 8, 2009 11:37 AM

It is definitely a painful chunk taken out of every transaction. The worst part is that you have no idea going into it what your costs are going to be. I don't know if the customer is using a rewards card or a basic card. Reading the monthly statement is frustratingly difficult.

Tom Saddow

October 8, 2009 01:28 PM

It's about time someone is looking into this. American express gets 4%. It depends what network the card goes through. You should see my bill, it is so complicated it will make your head spin.
They nickel and dime you to death. I hate all of them. If the customer complains the processor has no problem charging it back to the store. Then you have to find the receipt and prove they bought it. If I didn't need to accept credits cards I would not have them.

Rich Brower

October 8, 2009 01:48 PM

Good article John!

I now work for a payments provider but have merchant experience as well so very interested in this subject. A couple additional points for discussion I'd make…
1) Debit cards are only cheaper if you have a larger average ticket value. Apple iTunes would prefer a user to use a rewards card than a debit card on a $.99 purchase.
2) It used to be standard to receive a single, blended rate for credit card fees (ie one price regardless of the type of card used). As a result of complaints on the lack of transparency in their pricing, the associations created the publicly available discount rates. As implied in your article, these documents are so complex that you could spend all your time trying to understand and anticipate the effect that you'd have no time to sell products.
3) I now work in an international capacity and see the differences between pricing per Visa/MC region (Visa & MC separate the world into regions and price different). It’s interesting to see these differences especially in regions where governments have stepped in and mandated price caps (Australia for example).


Rich Brower

Suzanne Riga

October 8, 2009 01:52 PM

We discount 3% for cash sales to try to recover the cost on credit cards. The problem we've run into now is more customers use debit cards than cash. Debit cards are considered a "cash transaction" so we really get hit hardon those charges. We are debating now whether to consider not giving a discount on a debit card. That would antagonize the customers though, so we're caught in a catch 22.

Jerry Dewey

October 8, 2009 01:56 PM

John--the 2nd Cicuit Court has ruled that Visa and Mastercard have the market power. Due to their unwillingness to police themselves wisely and not take advantage of their dominance, Pres. Obama signed into law a consumer "bill of rights" this year regarding CC companies' practices.
Visa reported a 2nd quarter 76% increase in earnings this year to over $700 million during the worst economic downturn in 70 years for the rest of us. Not a wise strategy.
Eventually, greed will catch up to CC companies and the US gov't. will begin some type of regulation similar to what the EU, Australia, and New Zealand have done.

Angela De Cicco

October 8, 2009 02:04 PM

Supermarkets are complaining day after day about how much money they spend on interchange fees. Don't forget you have to pay transaction fees on top. Maintenenace fees, hidden fees, statement fee, the list goes on and on. Its a days work to figure out if you are even getting charged the right fee. There are ISOs that walk in and tell you how they can save you TONS. None of them ever work out.

R Daugherty

October 8, 2009 02:41 PM

These reward charges are a crime, I'm paying for other business rewards while the bank and the rewards go to them for free. and the fed bails out the banks ,what a joke. We are considering a ATM in our store. There is no excuse for the banks being able to do this to smaller merchants. Where is the regulation from our goverment? R Daugherty

Steve Krecker

October 8, 2009 04:10 PM

I have a real problem with paying a bank to bring them business, as a retailer and contractor I wish I could be in on a scam like that. I could finaly retire. For years I deliberatly did not set up to take credit cards because of the fees, and guess what? people found a way to pay me anyway. It was only because I had an employee who twisted my arm enough that I finaly relented,but I often think of going back and I just might.

K Stalzer

October 8, 2009 04:16 PM

Why should a merchant pay to make a bank card work. Charge the consumer for each transaction on his credit card / debit card bill. The gov't doesn't charge us to use cash. Then the market would quickly set the price of credit card convenience!

C Brown

October 8, 2009 06:14 PM

I have always felt that the credit card fees were fraudulent. The processors are bad enough, but the network guys love it! You can't tell what you're paying - World card, corp card, qualified, non qualified, how your help answered the prompts (did we know Pepsi Cola, inc billing address.)If you can't tell what is going on, you are being over charged, period! I keep waiting for a new network/bank to blow a hole in the whole scam and offer something tranparent, and hoping that the government doesn't get anymore envolved. I love to tell 'em that I am going to charge extra for credit card use, and they always say "You can't, thats illegal!" Like we need some more of that.

Rick Reid

October 8, 2009 06:21 PM

I have found that most people are not carring cash and I have to have a CC machine to conduct business. In doing so I have recieved bills from the bank that cuts into a small business like mine up to 3% with the added charge of .25 cents per card use. So I have had to start charging the 3% over the retail cost to use a card in my shop. The State of Texas charges a convenience fee to pay the state sales tax with a CC. There is the option of paying with a electronic check which I do to reduce my cost. I figure that if the State of Texas can do it so can I.

Monte Smith

October 8, 2009 09:00 PM

In a small restaurant business were we not only have dine in facility, but we also do take-out and catering. Credit card payments are 48% of our payments. So you add all the fees it gets to be expensive. It seems that these card companies twice a year raise their rates and if a restaurnt raises it menu they get another raise based on their percentages....We just started calulating the cost of these fees fo be included in menu pricing..


October 9, 2009 12:24 AM

I'm not sure I understand your point.

Is the issue that the interchange fee exists at all? So the card networks are a cartel? And we should get rid of any fixed terms of exchange between the banks in the system? How, exactly, is a card network with lots of banks on both sides then going to work? (As an aside, don't we have antitrust laws to deal with this, if it's the core issue?)

Or is the issue that the fee is too high? So that a lower interchange fee (still through a "cartel") would be acceptable? In that case, what's the appropriate level of the fee?

Or is the issue that too little of the interchange fee is passed back to cardusers? So that the issue is the level of competition between the banks that give cards to consumers? What if that 2% fee were rebated directly to every consumer that used cards? Would that encouragement to use cards rather than cash be bad?

Or is the issue that rewards are "wrong" in some sense? So that we want to restrict competition between the banks that offer cards to avoid these negative prices?

Or is it a transparency issue? So that if I knew the fee that a merchant pays when I use my card, I would care in some way?

Some may claim that this fee is "anti-consumer." But I get 1-5% cash back on every purchase that I make with my cards. That's a phenomenal deal. In the end, the networks are basically pitting merchants (actually, people who don't use cards b/c merchants charge them the same price that I pay) against me - our objectives, benefits, and costs aren't the same, and I get a pretty good deal from my cards while cash users arguably get screwed. I may be selfish, but if you take that good deal away by, for example, altering the underlying fees that support my rewards, I'll be pretty ticked off.

And I might stop using my cards. In the end, is that the desired outcome? Lower card use? Do my rewards give me incentives to use my card too much? Should I really use cash instead? Perhaps a merchant would like me to do so, but is that the appropriate criterion?

And for pete's sake, if you hate my card use so much, just make me pay for it in your prices. Give me a discount for cash if my card use is that onerous for you, and I'll reconsider the value of my rewards.

J Goldberg

October 9, 2009 07:02 AM

Recently in my small business I did an average cost per ticket anaylsis of my credit card transactions instead of trying to figure out the 40 page bill. What i found out is that it costs me $2.12 average for each transaction. I did 1100 transaction in July and it cost, with all of the fees open and hidden, $2332. Even though it is against the rules we have instituted a $20 minimum on the acceptance of credit or dedit cards.

B Breck

October 9, 2009 10:29 AM

I recently read a new ebook about asset based lending which had a case study that pulled back the curtain on how merchant processors bill for services. We are confident our new insight will result in substantial annual savings.

I set up a link for those wanting to learn more

go to -

Neal Bomze

October 9, 2009 07:25 PM

I agree with all the small merchants who are confused with their statements and annoyed with not being able to budget these fees every month. Another annoyence is the lag time to recieve the funds in the bank. I feel that the money recieved from the charge should be in my account instantaneously since it's taken from the guest immediatly. The lag time can be many days and on holiday weekends can be longer.

Brad Green

October 10, 2009 03:41 PM

I own a small c-store. With what we lose every month on credit and debit card fees I could hire more employees.I always thought that if you borrowed money from someone you pay interest on what you borrowed. I am basically loaning money to one of the banks customers. Therefore I should be collecting the money plus interest on what I have loaned to their card holder. The card holder should have to pay for using the card not the merchant.


October 14, 2009 12:09 AM

Ok, Neal. Suppose that the banks fixed these "confusing" statements or payment lags. Admittedly, the banks may not want to make those changes, but would they solve the issues surrounding fees for card transactions?

And Brad, do you raise your prices due to these costs? If so, how, exactly, are you losing money on card transactions? You're charging me more for each transaction that I make, so you're basically passing those fees along (on average perhaps) in your prices.

If you don't account for your card fees in your prices, why are you accepting cards? Are you literally experiencing a cost that you're unable, in some way, to build into your prices? What's so special about this cost that you can't account for it in your prices? Or is there some sort of ex ante-ex post distinction that is important in the way that you value card transactions? That is, beforehand you like card acceptance because it attracts customers, but after the fact you don't want to pay those fees for actual card transactions?

In the end, no one answered my earlier questions (which I was really directing towards Mr. Tozzi, but toss out to everyone). I love my cards. They give me a great deal. I may be selfish for liking that deal, but I'm not sure that merchants are any less selfish by effectively demanding that I give it up.

What, precisely, is the problem with the current arrangement? Do I use my cards too much? Should I really use cash or a check instead? If that's what you want, can't you find some way to induce me to pay with cash or check? Is someone other than me paying for my rewards and, if so, who exactly is that person or persons? Keep in mind that if you, as a merchant, can raise your prices in response to these fees, the answer to this question isn't really that clear.

In the end, I sympathize with merchants who pay fees while I get a good deal. But what's the core problem? I like getting a good deal. And in the end, I'm not so keen on Brad's argument that I shouldn't get a good deal from my card use.

John Tozzi (BusinessWeek reporter)

October 14, 2009 10:55 AM

Thanks everyone for your comments. Teddy, to your point, I think the issue is whether interchange fees accurately reflect the value that credit cards provide for merchants and consumers. Is the market transparent and competitive enough to set prices fairly? As I noted in another post ( the card networks competing for business from issuing banks have an incentive to set higher interchange fees, because banks want to maximize fee income from the credit cards they issue. If that's the case, the market is working for banks, not for consumers or merchants.

If the fees are artificially high because of a lack of competition or transparency, that's an economic cost shouldered by merchants and consumers (especially those who use cash but still pay prices inflated by interchange fees) without providing any real value to them.

Michael Saum

October 15, 2009 10:16 PM

As a long-time very successful merchant services rep I have developed a substantial mutually rewarding relationship with my clients by educating them on this industry. In 2005, I was diagnosed with neck cancer and subsequent treatment left me unable to continue being in the field. Since then, I have developed a couple websites that are simply educational in nature to help merchants better understand this industry and how best to take advantage of this service rather than being taken advantage of. Please check out my site and contact me with any questions that you may have. You can find me at or

Mel B

October 16, 2009 08:53 AM

First I would like to say these are all very good comments and points.
The problem I see is there should be only one rate for interchange fees, whether it is a rewards card or a basic card. The merchant has no way of knowing off hand which is which and is not allow to discriminate on which type of card they will accept, i.e. Visa rewards, Visa basic. If you accept Visa you take all Visa. A merchant can only decide on whether they take credit or debit or both.
The one difference I will say about the fees is I do think it fair for a merchant to pay a higher interchange rate for mail order/telephone order type of business because of the higher accurance of fraud when there is not a face to face transaction. Along with a higher chance of not winning a chargeback submission.

Of course debit is cheaper with no interchange rate as there is no credit lending, which would make sense for merchants to only accept debit.
Should the consumer then be charged a fee for using their credit card? It would then seem like a penalty for me as a consumer using plastic.

Also as a consumer, it would be an unfair practice for myself to have to pay a higher price for products if paying cash to compensate for the fees the merchant pays for those using credit cards, as it is a convenience the merchant decides and provides for their customers and future customers. Is that another penalty to comsumers using cash, which the merchant decided to provide. There are still plenty of businesses which are cash only and it has not in truth hurt their business.
Remember, it is a convenience the merchant has decided to provide.
Small mom and pop business such as a convenience store charges more for their product compared to a larger store such as a grocery, but as the merchant they buy the product at the same price or purchase their product from discount stores also using credit cards, in which the fee is not passed along to them. One can't have their cake and eat it too.
Thanks for listening to my opinion from someone on 3 sides of the perpetual fence.


October 16, 2009 11:56 PM

Nope, Mr. Tozzi, you didn't answer my questions. You make a few statements about "market power." But your statements would appear to involve claims that either my rewards are too low or swipe fees are too high. Without answering any core questions.

In the former case, it's not clear that merchants, and not cardholders, are getting screwed. In this case, banks that give cards to consumers simply aren't competitive enough and should pass even more of their swipe fees back to me. Awesome for me if we could work that out.

But given the angle of your posts, let's assume that's not the issue about which you're writing.

In the latter case, where swipe fees are too high, what's the real - the core - the essential - problem? Merchants pay "too much"? Notwithstanding their ability to pass through costs in their prices (so that it's not clear who actually pays these fees anyway), that's not a meaningful economic response. I pay "too much" - from my point of view - for everything I buy.

The core issue concerns the distortion associated with these fees. If I pay "too much" for milk, the distortion is that I buy too little milk - that's the real - the core - the essential - distortion associated with high milk prices. My loss of milk is the corresponding loss to society (and me!) from the high price of milk.

What's the analogous distortion generated by swipe fees (and the associated rewards for cardholders - again ignoring how much of those fees are passed through to cardholders as I addressed that above)? Too much card use? Too little?

Or, perhaps, is someone else paying the costs of my card use and associated rewards? If so, the card networks would have an ingenious business model as they're shifting the costs of encouraging card use onto people who may not use their systems. Who might those people be?


But they can, I would assume, change their prices in response to their card fees. (If not, they can't claim that their prices are higher because they pay these fees.)

Non-card users?


We all (arguably) pay higher prices due to card transactions (as merchants account for their costs), but I get a doozy of a rebate (partially, or more, offsetting the higher prices because merchants don't set differential prices depending on how I pay) while cash users get nothing.

Now, this might not be a problem - if cards are really "better" than cash for society at large, then we might like these fees that push people towards card use. But if card use (and the high swipe fees that support it) is a problem, the solution is not obvious. Do we need to provide stronger incentives to get those cash users to switch to cards? Which might involve even higher rewards (and higher swipe fees). Or do we need to decrease my use of cards by cutting my rewards (by cutting swipe fees)?

At the end of the day, you return to the core question - What is the appropriate level of card use? I really don't know the answer to this question. But unlike this "pay too much" (and the flip side - "pay too little") stuff, that's the core question that you have to answer.

BTW, like Mel B. (who made some excellent points), I have no skin in this game (except for the fact that I love my cards). I'm just fascinated by the arguments involved in this issue and want to sort them out.


October 22, 2009 07:04 PM

Q: If I develop a website that essentially takes a CC/Debit card as a 'donation' to someone or some institution (don't read to much into this, I can't disclose all the info here) and I want the entire 'donation' to be recieved in the back-end (I become a pass-through), how do I charge my fees. Since, I can't raise my prices (because the consumer dictates how much they will 'donate') and I can't charge the interchange rates (because they say I can't, and they don't tell me how much they are upfront) how do I charge for this service?



October 23, 2009 10:11 PM

CB, I think that you're talking about a scenario that's similar to a tax payment. An individual wants to pay their taxes with a card, but the tax due is set by statute. In your example, the donation amount is set by the donor. Because the tax due (or the donation amount) cannot be changed, the state (or the charity) cannot alter the "price" to reflect the card fee.

Yep, this is a problem. For taxes, I believe that the card networks allow fees to be tacked onto card payments. For a charity, I believe that they don't (although I'm not sure). So there's no benefit to a charity from a cash (or, more likely, a check) payment, while a card payment eats directly and entirely into the charity's bottom line. Yep, that sucks, although I think that an important issue then involves how many people would choose to contribute if they can't use cards. Still, you probably could offer a cash/check discount (if you pay by check your donation will be $ XX) b/c I think that's allowed by law.

Of course, this issue does not apply to a typical merchant who can, in fact, alter its prices in response to costs, including card costs. There's no analogy to the "tax due" or "donation amount" in that case.


November 9, 2009 07:37 PM

Teddy is very blithe about the ability of merchants to raise fees to cover costs. In the current economy any price raise is noticed and affects sales. I am a very small business and I take credit cards because I have to, I know I would lose sales if I didn't. What used to be a simple process with minimal fees has become a nightmare. As others have noted, reading the monthly statements is an arduous experience and nothing is clearcut. And yes, we, the merchants pay for your nice rewards. Most customers, when they realize what their "cards" are costing us, will pay with cash or a check. They usually are not aware of the fees involved (which continuously rise and now there are "protection" fees so we can't be held liable if a customer's privacy is compromised). Since I am a point of sale merchant and have to use wireless service to process my customers' cards on the spot, I also pay wireless fees even though the machines do not always work due to spotty coverage and in that case, the merchant assumes all risks.

Kristin Witzenburg

December 4, 2009 06:37 PM

I take credit cards in my VRBO leasing business and think its a great deal. Checks take forever to come in the mail, and there's a high risk of fraud with checks. It makes it very easy for people to buy from me, which I'm certain increases my sales tremendously. The fees aren't too bad in my opinion, considering all the benefits I get in return.

As a consumer, I could care less that merchants have to pay this fee. I'm positive I spend more at merchants with the convenience of a card. I can't remember the last time I wrote a check in a store, and carrying around cash is risky and an inconvenience. Merchants getting my business take cards. Merchants that don't, don't get my business.

I don't know why any consumer would complain about this issue. I think that cards tend to favor consumers in the transaction. If I buy a product, and it breaks immediately, and the seller won't take it back,my card issuer might help me dispute that transaction -- that's a huge consumer benefit. If I paid by cash or by check, the seller would have 100% of the leverage as to whether or not to return my money. Often that means I'm just out the money.

Remember when you used to order something by mail, and you had to send a check, and wait weeks and weeks and weeks to get what you ordered? And sometimes you didn't even get it?

Speaking of which -- the world of internet purchasing simply wouldn't work without cards. I'll bet many of the merchants complaining here are NOT internet merchants. 100% of my leasing business comes in online or by fax. Not so surprising -- 100% of my leasing revenue is processed through cards.

Lastly have you noticed lately cell phones carriers are handling a lot of payment transactions? You think you don't like a few percentage points on purchases -- wait until more and more purchases go through cell phones, and you'll long for the days of a few percentage points, and all the securities we expect from cards. I don't know about the rest of you, but my cell phone bill is a LOT more tedious and confusing than my merchant processing bill, and my cell phone bill has never been as low as the deal I signed up for -- more like twice the cost.

Save your fire for this fight, fellow merchants. In fact, let's get a head start on it.

Debra Barone

February 23, 2010 01:59 PM

I analysed our company's last 6 months of credit card sales. We paid 3.63% overall (incldues MC, Visa & Amex)


April 23, 2010 04:40 PM

As a merchant, we are NOT passing the cost on to the customer. We originally took credit cards so we can do business with government agencies and the behemoths like GE, IBM etc who tell us they will pay us in net 90 when we have to pay our bills net 30. We thought taking cards would be a better route for that portion of our customer base. Over the years, to clear up past due, and yes, for convenience, we now process the card for all our customers who want to pay with credit cards. We have over 13000 inventory items, so to go back and increase the price 3% and discount the cash/check customers is unrealistic and would be confusing. I reality we are NOT giving a cash discount, we are just trying to cover our credit card processing costs. I don't understand why the credit card issuing banks can pass on the higher fees for reward type cards. Reward cards help them compete for customers, so they are the ones who are offering a premium to their card holders, but I am the one paying for it. You can't do business today and not take credit cards. If I had the time and the manpower I would increase our prices 3% and give "cash" discounts. It's an accounting nightmare to do cash discounts, customers pay different ways for different products, line credits, too many variables that our software system doesn't address. Plus add the hours of phone time with disgruntled customers calling because of the rate increases... I like Debra Barone figure we are paying over 3% overall. It's a cost of doing business. In this economy, 3% of our declining sales is bloodletting. Banks should be more discriminating on who gets cards. The loss rate would go down, which I'm sure is factored into my fees.

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What's it like to run your own company today? Entrepreneurs face multiple hurdles new and old, from raising capital and managing employees to keeping up with technology and competing in a global marketplace. In this blog, the Small Business channel's John Tozzi and Nick Leiber discuss the news, trends, and ideas that matter to small business owners. Follow them on Twitter @newentrepreneur.

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