Nothing has changed for retailers when customers swipe their debit cards for payment. But many feel that’s wrong.
In late March, a federal appeals court struck down a lower court ruling that said the 21-cents-per-swipe fee should be lowered. The appeal is seen as a victory for banks and the Federal Reserve.
The fight over swipe fees originated from laws that came as a result of the economic downturn. As part of those reforms, Congress ordered that debit card purchase fees needed to be “reasonable.” At that time, the average fee was about 45 cents for each transaction.
After initially proposing to limit fees to 12 cents in 2011, the central bank mandated a 21-cents cap. The actual cost of processing a transaction is about 4 cents, according to federal officials.
Soon after, the National Association of Convenience Stores and the National Retail Federation filed a lawsuit, stating that the fees should be lower.
“The Fed came under very intense lobbying from the banking industry looking for a higher fee, and what they ultimately adopted was 21 cents, which is basically five times as much as the actual cost,” said J. Craig Shearman, vice president, government affairs and public relations at the NRF.
Had the appellate court upheld the U.S. District Court’s ruling from last July, the 21-cents cap would have been thrown out. In addition to the swipe fee, merchants also pay 0.05 percent of the transaction cost as a processing fee.
“This is a lost opportunity,” Shearman added. “The Fed clearly set the cap too high in 2011, and last year a district court judge agreed that it was too high, and we had the opportunity here to save consumers even more money. … Unfortunately, the appellate court disagreed with that.”
For retailers, especially small ones, the fees add up to a lot of extra money.
“We tell [customers] we prefer a check vs. a credit card [or debit card],” said Nancy Barlow, general manager of Sun Splash Pool & Spa in Ludlow, Mass. “We’ll take a small deposit to hold something or do a contract, but when it comes to big payments, we prefer not to take a debit or credit card.”
The NRF’s effort would make a difference to Sun Splash. “We would be more apt to take them toward larger products,” Barlow said.
It’s much more common to have customers using debit cards to purchase routine chemicals than big-ticket items, and retailers need to recoup those fee amounts.
“If we’re selling toys or whatever, we’re going to have to factor that little percentage [fee] into the price of the item,” said Michael Sust, co-owner of Huntington Woods Pools & Spas in Royal Oak, Mich.
The NRF is still deciding whether to appeal the decision.
“Our attorneys need to look at this and see what all the ramifications are, and we have to get their advice on how best to proceed,” Shearman said.