Retailers frustrated by rising fees from debit card transactions can look forward to a bit of relief in the fall.
The Federal Reserve recently announced it was capping the amount banks could collect each time a card is used, commonly referred to as swipe fees.
Beginning Oct. 1, those fees cannot exceed 21 cents per transaction, plus 0.05 percent of the transaction amount. It also only applies to banks with more than $10 billion in assets.
While the new limits are a victory of sorts for retailers — swipe fees currently average about 44 cents — it also reflects the influence of the finance sector: Original proposals called for fees to not exceed 12 cents, but lobbying on behalf of banks, debit-card companies and others helped raise the limit by nearly double.
“It’s interesting and a little disappointing how Congress has hedged on the amount and the size of institutions involved,” said Brian Quint, president of Aqua Quip, a Seattle-based retailer.
The debit-card reform came last year after retailers’ groups and others complained of continually rising fees. The cost to banks to process each transaction is about 4 cents.
“We’ve been looking hard at those costs because a large percentage of our transactions come from debit cards,” Quint added, “and we’ve seen a significant creeping up of those fees. You have to question whether they’re trying to make up for the fact that they’re not making as much money in other areas.”
Swipe fees totaled more than $16 billion in revenue for banks in 2009, and that number was believed to be higher for 2010, according to published reports.
Quint, whose firm has nine retail stores, noted that debit card use appeared to be on the rise in more of his working-class markets, while affluent shoppers tended to stick with credit cards. Retailers elsewhere reported similar buying trends.
“Big purchases still go credit,” said Kathy Jurgens, co-owner of WCI Pools and Spas in Urbandale, Iowa, “but for everyday purchases, items up to $100 or $150, we’re seeing an increase in debit.”
Meanwhile, banks already are exploring new revenue streams in anticipation of the lost income, among them higher ATM fees and maintenance fees on checking accounts. Some even considered a $50 or $100 ceiling on debit-card purchases. It remains to be seen how consumers will respond, and whether they will switch to credit cards, which were spared the new regulation, for more of their routine transactions.