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Small retailers say ‘no thank you’ on credit card fees

– Gretel-Ann Fischer already told customers that she won’t accept credit cards for purchases under $5 at her Vermont bakery. The last thing she wants to do is anger them by passing along the transaction fee she has to pay each time they use plastic.

Fischer is one of thousands of retailers in 40 states who now have the right to charge customers the fees that come along with using credit cards. They won that right as part of a settlement of a class action lawsuit brought by merchants against the credit card companies Visa and MasterCard and major banks that issue credit cards. But many small retailers say that customers will bolt if they tack on a surcharge that could range from 1.5 percent and 4 percent of purchases made with plastic.

“It’s just not going to happen. It’s hard enough to get them to accept the $5 minimum,” says Fischer, who owns Cupps Cafe and Bakery in Winooski, Vt. She imposed the minimum because of a 17-cent per transaction fee that’s in addition to the 2.5 percent that Visa and MasterCard charge for the entire purchase. Seventeen cents on a $2 cup of coffee was too much for the bakery to absorb.

Credit card transaction fees cost the bakery $10,000 a year, a big bite for a company with annual revenue of about $400,000. But Fischer and her husband, Brian, say passing the fees along just isn’t an option.

“I think you’d alienate a bunch of customers,” says Brian Fischer.

The surcharges are the result of a settlement last July of a long-running federal antitrust lawsuit brought by nine retailers against Visa, MasterCard and major banks. Before the agreement, the credit card companies prohibited retailers and other businesses that accept credit cards from charging customers for the right to use plastic. The settlement gave merchants the right to pass along the fees as of Jan. 27.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit ranged from Leon’s Transmission, a California auto repair company with seven locations, to Payless ShoeSource, which has thousands of stores across the country. They charged that Visa, MasterCard and the banks conspired to fix the fees on credit card transactions. Other big merchants to file suit include Kroger and Walgreen.

The surcharges can’t be slipped in without telling customers. The agreement requires retailers to notify customers before and after a purchase. That means visible signs at a store entrance and its cash registers. And the sales receipt has to list the surcharge separately. Websites must notify customers that they’re about to pay more for something they buy online.

But the number of retailers who pass along the transaction fee is likely to be relatively small. Big retailers like Wal-Mart and Target have already said they won’t do it. And under the agreement, a multistate retailer with stores in the 10 states where the surcharge is illegal can’t impose it in states where it is.

The lawsuit’s intent was to lower the transaction fees that merchants pay, says Mallory Duncan, a senior vice president at the National Retail Federation, a trade group that is opposed to the settlement.

In the end, the terms of the settlement created a dilemma. Many retailers could go ahead and pass on the fees to shoppers. But by doing so they risk angering customers.

“That’s exactly opposite where we want to be,” Duncan says.

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