Opportunities are often difficult to recognize and they do not come with their values stamped upon them. It is often hard to distinguish between easy choices and those of opportunity; such may be the case with the retail industry’s reaction to the proposed Visa, MasterCard Settlement. As it stands today the proposed “Brooklyn” settlement has been rejected by nearly all retailer associations like; NACS, SIGMA, NGA as well as multiple retailers including large national and smaller local companies and even Senator Dick Durbin has added his disapproval to the chorus of rejection. It’s fair to say that the proposal is “Dead on Arrival”. Even so, I wonder if by refusing to embrace this settlement an opportunity is being missed.
With so much opposition to the settlement, how is it possible that an opportunity may be missed? The answer lies in the fundamental assertion that retailers can compete for the consumer’s method of payment steering them to low cost payment, rather than relying on legislative price controls or judicial action that seek to control the payments industry. Core to this belief is that there is significant competition in the credit card industry, it just happens to be between banks competing for consumers, rather than between retailers and banks competing for the consumers method of payment. There is nothing unusual about this model, it’s standard platform economics. The more end-users (retailers accepting cards and consumers with cards) on either side of the platform (MC/VISA), the more valuable and hence expensive the platform. This is why banks do not negotiate fees with retailers. Their mission is adding value to the consumer to carry and use their card for payment. The result is richer reward programs that add cost and drive the transaction fees higher. The retailer’s perception is a monopolist market, when in fact, as consumers we all participate in the very same economic activity.
In today’s rapidly evolving payment landscape consumers have many payment options. Surcharging creates an opportunity for the retailer to compete with the associations and promote low cost payment options. The challenge with surcharging is that it forces retailers to compete not just for the consumers purchase, but also for their method of payment and as a result some retailers may choose to use card payment as an economic advantage. Up until the proposed settlement this concept was merely theoretical because the card association rules prohibited the activity. While some retailers had experimented with cash discounts, the concept of charging for credit or debit card use has not been tested. The reason there is no information on surcharging is because it was prohibited by the associations operating rules. The Associations prohibited surcharging because it exposes the real cost of payment to the consumer and therefore allows the consumer to understand that using their card is not free. This capability provides a powerful new tool for retailers to steer consumer payment choice.
Now armed with the tool needed to expose this cost, retailers are more concerned about the perception and customer services issues than the costs of payment. One retailer was quoted in NACS Online as saying he wants customers “impressed by the quality of products and services they receive” lamenting that surcharges for payment may appear to penalize them for the use of the card saying “it does not make for very good customer service”. This statement tends to suggest that the current costs accepting credit cards is acceptable, a suggestion that tends to explain why the opportunity presented by surcharging may be overlooked.
It’s unlikely that we will learn the answers to these questions in the near future. The industry is committed to seeking significant concessions that go beyond the proposed settlement which means the lawsuit is likely to move forward. Stay tuned……