Will retailers add a new fee for paying with credit or debit?

A cup of coffee at your local cafe might cost you 2-5 percent more if you pay by plastic instead of cash. So could anything else you buy with a credit or debit card.

Tools from Lowes? A computer from Best Buy? A book from Amazon? The rules apply to both in-store purchases and those made online.

That's the result of a recent court settlement that had many of the nation's retailers, from single location burger joints to the largest national chains, pitted against the banks that issue cards. At issue were the fees that the small businesses have to pay the banks, and the banks' merchant agreements.

Until the settlement, merchants were contractually prohibited from adding a surcharge to plastic purchases, even though they had to pay a percentage-based fee themselves. There are also often additional per-charge fees ranging up to 20 cents for each sale. That sounds small, but can be significant on small purchases.

The merchants were also not supposed to require minimum purchase amounts for customers using a credit or debit card. Those rules were lawful in 40 states, but in ten, there were regulations already in place that allowed it. Of course, many merchants across the country had broken those rules for years, anyway.

The states where the surcharge is already illegal are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Texas. Now that the other states are allowed to add charges or set miminums, you may see changes, but not everywhere.

Tim Wiegman, the owner of Boulevard Limosine in Kansas City, told CPA Practice Advisor that he doesn't plan on passing any charges along. He says it would be a competitive disadvantage.

"My business planning already includes the costs and fees involved in accepting credit or debit cards, so they are built into pricing as a part of my overhead costs," he said. "If a customer chooses to pay in cash, well, that's an additional 3-4 percent bonus for us."

He also noted that a large part of his business comes from corporate accounts, which are paid either in advance or by check through invoicing and contract agreements. Those agreements wouldn't be affected by the new credit card surcharge rules.

Wiegman isn't the only small business owner who thinks the change isn't a big deal.

In Vermont, Gretel-Ann Fischer, the owner of Cupps Cafe and Bakery, told the Associated Press recently that she won't pass along a surcharge because she knows that it could irritate customers and hurt sales. But she is planning on setting a minimum charge of $5.

"It's just not going to happen," she said. "It's hard enough to get them to accept the $5 minimum." She said she is also charged 17 cents per transaction for credit or debit card purchases, which combined with the percentage charge, can add 25 cents or more to the overhead on a cup of coffee.

With the settlement, retailers will be required to post a notice if they will charge a percentage fee or if, like Cupps Cafe, they set a minimum charge amount for plastic purchases. Websites also have to follow these rules.

Most of the larger retailers still won't pass along charges, though. Chains like Starbucks, Target, Wal-Mart, Staples and Best Buy have already made statements saying they will continue sales unchanged. According to the provisions of the settlement, these retailers wouldn't have been able to anyway.


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