News Column

Credit Card 'Surcharge' Warnings Called Propaganda

Jan 29, 2013

Joan Verdon

Credit Card

Starting this week, New Jersey merchants are allowed to pass along some credit card "swipe fees" to customers. However, retailers, restaurant owners, and trade groups say it is highly unlikely any stores in the state will do so.

The retail groups also say recent news stories warning of coming swipe fee surcharges are "propaganda" to shift the focus from credit card company fees to merchant pricing.

"Merchants have no desire to surcharge and no plans to surcharge," said J. Craig Shearman, a vice president of the National Retail Federation. "The concept of widespread surcharging is purely card industry propaganda."

Shearman said New Jersey merchants are "theoretically" allowed to charge customers for Visa and MasterCard charges, "but anyone seeking to do so would have to meet a complex set of requirements" few retailers could meet.

And North Jersey retailers of all sizes said customers don't need to worry -- they will never tack on extra credit card fees.

"At this point in time there is no way we would consider doing that," said Scott Gillman,who heads the company that brought the Smashburger franchise to New Jersey. "It's going to upset a lot of people and that's not something we're interested in doing."

"It's not worth losing a customer," said Gary Lowitt,owner of the Aroma Espresso Bar at Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus. Even though merchants such as Lowitt, who allow customers to use credit cards for small purchases like a cup of coffee, are most impacted by credit card fees, Lowitt said he likes giving his customers the convenience of paying by credit cards and will not charge them extra for that service.

The nation's largest retailer, Walmart, likewise has no plans to tack on surcharge fees. "We're not interested in surcharging customers in order to allow credit card companies to continue charging unfair fees, Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said.

"There's zero upside for a retailer to implement it, and a whole lot of downside," said John Holub, president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association. Having merchants add on surcharges is simply "the greedy credit card companies trying to get retailers to do their dirty work," he said.

The surcharges are part of a settlement agreement between MasterCard, Visa, and nine major banks, and retailers represented in a class-action lawsuit.

The settlement agreement allowed retailers in 40 states to begin passing along the swipe fees to customers on Sunday. The other 10 states, including New York and Connecticut, have laws prohibiting such surcharges. The settlement, however, has not received final approval by federal court in Brooklyn, and several retailers have already announced plans to appeal it when it is approved.

Shearman said the settlement restrictions make it unlikely many retailers would even be allowed to charge the fees, which could equal as much as 4 percent of the purchase price. Retailers with stores in any of the 10 states that prohibit the surcharges would be barred from charging them in any state. Also, Shearman said, retailers that also accept American Express can't add surcharges for MasterCard and Visa purchases because American Express doesn't allow surcharges.

"The bottom line is that very few retailers would be able to surcharge under the settlement, and that the vast majority don't want to surcharge even if they could," he said.

The NRF and other groups have been fighting to force the credit card companies to lower their swipe fees. They say allowing merchants to make customers pay the fees merely distracts from that key issue.

Debra Oberg, owner of the Oberg & Lindquist appliance stores in Westwood and Wyckoff, said that while high credit card charges "are killing vendors," she would never pass them along to a customer. "Shame on them," she said of the card companies. "They make plenty of money to take care of this."

Source: (c)2013 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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