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Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

Debit or Credit, the role of merchant-issued rewards and the consumer’s choice of method of payment.

In credit card, debit card, interchange, loyalty, merchants, payment, swipe fees on December 28, 2010 at 10:45 am

On December 16, 2010 the fog began to lift on where Section 1075 of the Durbin Amendment would lead as the Federal Reserve Board issued its proposed interpretation of the legislative language. One question on many peoples mind is how the new regulations will impact consumers. Voices on the banking side seem skeptical that the regulation will have any positive impact for consumers sighting Australian studies where retailer prices appear unchanged as bank fees rose and payment options declined.  On the other side of the argument, the National Retail Federation welcomed proposed regulations saying “a significant reduction in the fees would result in lower costs for merchants and could lead to discounts for their customers.”

NRF Senior Vice President and General Counsel Mallory Duncan said. “The combination of reducing rates and allowing retailers to offer discounts will go a long way toward stopping the current scheme where big banks take a bite out of consumers’ wallets every time they use a debit card.” He goes on to say that the NFR “will work closely with the Fed as these regulations are finalized to ensure that the reduction in fees – and the amount of money retailers can offer customers as a discount – is maximized.” And so it seems that the stage is set for retailers to offers consumers discounts if and when they use a debit card to pay for their purchase.

In a recent article published in PYMNTS, Katherine M. Robison of O’Melveny & Myers LLP says that “while the Board says it understands and appreciates the importance of debit cards to consumers, it is disturbing how little the interests of consumers entered into its justification for the Proposal”.  She goes on to say that “The debit card market is a two-sided one, with merchants who accept debit cards on one side and consumers who use them on the other.” Her point being that in this two-sided market an action that may decrease consumers’ demand for debit (say by making debit transactions less appealing to them) will ultimately decrease the utility of debit to merchants.  Further, if Banks add fees to the checking account or the use of the debit card while eliminating reward programs consumers will also find debit less appealing. She adds “So while lower interchange fees may encourage more merchants to accept debit cards, at that point there may be fewer consumers who want to use them.” Enter the role of merchant issued rewards.

Consumers could benefit from a rewards battle between merchants and banks for their method of payment. On one side will be the issuers of credit cards, on the other will be the retailer and the winner could be consumer as they rack up rewards by choosing either credit or debit. Their choice will be simple, choose to use a bank issued credit card and earn rewards like airline miles, or choose a debit card (either bank or merchant issued) and earn retailer funded rewards. The decision will be based on which offer the consumer finds more attractive? 

Over the last five years a variety of alternative payment providers. Like National Payment Card Association, have brought forth payment technologies like merchant issued debit cards designed to circumvent the traditional payment processing network delivering a lower cost transaction to the retailer. Now with the Fed’s proposed interpretation of the rule, bank issued debit cards will carry similar fees and so the retailers will face an analogous implementation challenge. How does a merchant motivate a consumer to use a lower cost form of payment? Merchant rewards are the obvious answer. And so the question is; will retailers recapitalize the cost difference between a traditional credit card transaction and the new debit fee and use the savings as a reward? And if not, why would the consumer choose to use a debit card rather than a credit card? Retailers will face a variety of challenges leveraging these new fees to their advantage.  Most notably is that the possibility that a debit transaction with merchant funded rewards may actually cost more than the original bank fee for a debit transaction.