After a decade of legal battles, the three major credit card companies are backing away from long-standing policies that prevented merchants from charging customers extra for paying with plastic.
Developments in two cases in the past week have the potential to change pricing practices everywhere from big-box retailers to corner coffee shops – but whether they do remains to be seen.
Thursday, a group of small and midsize businesses reached an agreement with American Express in a class-action lawsuit. Under the agreement, which a judge must approve, AmEx will allow surcharges to its cardholders as long as the same amount is levied on other credit and charge card users. It agreed to drop a measure that required debit card surcharges at the same level, according to a lawyer representing the company.
The deal comes less than a week after a judge approved a settlement that included a similar change of rules in a lawsuit against Visa and MasterCard.
The changes clear the way for vendors of all types to institute essentially a two-tier pricing system – charging more at the register to shoppers who pay by credit than to those who use debit cards or cash.
Marc Morrison, owner of Animal Land Inc., one of the plaintiff companies in the American Express case, said that he planned to do just that if the settlement were approved.
“What I really am pleased about is the transparency that this creates,” said Morrison, whose company provides moving services for pets to people who are relocating. “Merchants can now effectively incentivize their customers to pay with debit cards,” which carry minimal fees or none at all.
But it is unclear whether large numbers of retailers would change their pricing, and some have already indicated that they would appeal the terms of the Visa-MasterCard settlement, a move that could delay any impact.
“Our members have no interest in surcharging generally,” said Mallory Duncan, general counsel of the National Retail Federation. “It’s too complex, and it’s consumer unfriendly.”
What retailers really want, Duncan said, is lower transaction fees in the first place and more competition in the payments market.
Currently, many businesses do pass on to consumers “swipe fees” – which are said to generally range from 1 to 3 percent of the transaction – by building them into their prices. That means all customers pay, a system that some contend amounts to poorer consumers’ subsidizing affluent holders of premium rewards cards.
American Express shares rose $1.16, or 1.34 percent, to $87.77 Friday. MasterCard rose $11.67, or 1.45 percent, to $817.05. Visa dropped 11 cents, to $215.97.