Peter Guidi's Blog

Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page

New Bank fees set the stage for Merchant Issued Debit and Rewards.

In alternative payment, Bank Fees, Bank Tax, Coalition Loyalty, Convenience Store, credit card, debit card, interchange, loyalty, merchants, payment, Payment card, Peter Guidi, Petroleum retailing, Platforms, retailers, swipe fees, Uncategorized on October 1, 2011 at 3:01 pm

The stage is set for an epic battle between the merchant community and the financial industry to win the consumers method of payment (MOP).  This week, BoA joined the list of financial institutions announcing either fees, or cut backs in consumer rewards programs, for debit card use .  Senator Dick Durbin sounded surprised when he said of BoA’s actions; “It’s overt, unfair” adding that “Banks that try to make up their excess profits off the backs of their customers will finally learn how a competitive market works”. Many in the industry had long predicted that this would be the immediate result of the regulation (see my June 13, 2011 Blog).  Regardless of the merits of the regulation, or the banks reaction to it, one immediate result is that merchants have the opportunity to steer consumers to a lower cost form of payment (debit): the question; will they be able to leverage this opportunity, or will the payments industry adjust their payments offerings steering consumers to unregulated forms of payment with higher fees i.e. credit, pre-paid cards, etc.

The pivotal decision for merchants is how to recapitalize the anticipated saving from swipe reform and use that money as an incentive for consumers to choose a lower cost form of payment.  Many merchants, particularly in the petroleum and grocery industry are already actively competing for method of payment by offering ACH decoupled debit card programs (merchant issued debit) or cash discounts. For these merchants, and vendors offering alternative payments  like PayPal or National Payment Card Association, the Durbin Amendment is living up to expectations providing them with a strong tailwind to the merchant and consumer.

Merchants are understandably cautious as they approach payment.  While technology, investment and ramp time look like the heavy lift, the real challenge is to understand the economics.  Traditionally merchants have relied on the bank and card associations to deliver payments.  During the lead up to regulation one argument was that; “there was no competition for payment”. Merchants’ successfully argued this point, irrespective of the intense competition between banks for consumers. What was missing from the debate is that the reason consumers use one form of payment over another is often rewards. These rewards had been paid by the issuers of the card using interchange fees (as much as 50%), and now with regulation, that funding source has disappeared.  Therefore merchants can provide consumers with the same incentive to use a low cost form of payment by offering merchant issued rewards.

Finally, there is a saying “He who enrolls; controls”. Issuance or enrollment is a critical question for merchants choosing to compete for MOP using rewards. Assuming that the merchant chooses to offer rewards for a specific MOP, which MOP should it be, cash, PayPal, Google, or perhaps a merchant issued debit card.  The smartest strategy might be a flexible approach to payment where rewards are based on the costs associated with the method of payment, regardless of whether the rewards are paid for by the merchant, or a 3rd party.

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