Credit card giant Visa has made its first move toward its promised plan to change the interchange fees it charges merchants when customers swipe their credit cards.
For the past two years, when the company threatened to increase the fees, pressure from merchant groups and politicians forced Visa and Mastercard to step back from the fee hikes. Still, they put them all on notice that the increases would arrive this April.
Now, in an interesting twist, Reuters reported late Thursday that Visa is gearing up to reduce fees just for small businesses by 10%. The card company will cut the fees just for businesses with $250,000 or less in credit volume, the news outlet reported, citing an unnamed source.
A Visa spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on that report, and to a question about what will happen to fees for larger retail chains such as Target and Walmart.
The card company last month reached an agreement with the world’s largest retailer, Amazon, after that company protested Visa’s credit card fees for months with surcharges and by blocking use of the card in the U.K.
The smaller merchants targeted for the reduced interchange fee make up some 90% of businesses in the U.S., Reuters reported, but that statistic belies the fact that the big national retail chains account for a disproportionately large share of sales.
"We see this as a politically savvy move, that may also be part of a broader interchange schedule update (typically occurs in April each year), potentially with other changes," Wolfe Research Analyst Darrin Peller said in a Thursday note to clients. "Given the merchant size disclosed, the lowered interchange rate would cover approximately 90% of U.S. businesses, but we estimate less than 5% of volume overall."
The move by Visa flies in the face of ongoing protests from trade associations that represent U.S. retailers and have called for a decrease in the interchange fees.
"Swipe fees charged in the United States are the highest in the industrialized world and a lack of competition, transparency and scrutiny has allowed them to get that high," Merchants Payments Coalition Executive Committee Member Leon Buck said in a release last month, as that group announced an ad campaign against the anticipated April increase.
Regarding the latest news of a possible fee cut, another trade group weighed in. "Repeatedly over the years, Visa has promised small businesses relief that never materialized," National Association of Convenience Stores General Counsel Doug Kantor said in an emailed statement. "This announcement looks like another mirage geared toward public consumption that won’t give much help.”
Those groups, and the National Retail Federation, have been battling for lower interchange fees on both credit and debit cards for years.
In its Feb. 28 release, the MPC argued that Visa and Mastercard credit card fees that average 2.22% more than doubled over the past decade to $61.6 billion by 2020, citing the industry research firm The Nilson Report.
Wolfe’s Peller noted that any increase in fees benefits the banks that issue the cards more than the big card networks Visa and Mastercard. He also noted the likelihood of other increases. "We suspect this change could be offset by future increases in other areas or payment types," the note said. While there were no reports about Mastercard’s plans, Peller said he expects "similar actions."
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has championed the battle against interchange fees, helping pass legislation that restricted the fees on debit cards in 2010, but last year he continued to push the card "duopoly" to hold down card fees for America’s merchants.
That kind of public pressure, along with the economic upheaval for especially small merchants caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, is what led the card companies to step back from credit fee increases in the past two years.
The card companies had a new business reason to hold down credit card fees during the pandemic, too. The sudden COVID-19 shock led consumers to reduce spending as workers lost their jobs, and along the way they cut their use of credit cards, with their potential for higher fees, in favor of debit cards.
While credit card use has since begun to increase, the shift in demand from the higher-fee credit cards to the lower-fee debit cards was a reminder for the companies that consumers can do without their credit cards if need be.