Bernard Hickey 's Opinion

Bernard is an economics columnist for the NZ Herald

Bernard Hickey: Credit card charges a cheeky rort

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Companies wanting to keep customers happy (or at least not feeling plundered) should charge a simple percentage that is close to the 1-2% they pay for the service. Photo / Thinkstock
Companies wanting to keep customers happy (or at least not feeling plundered) should charge a simple percentage that is close to the 1-2% they pay for the service. Photo / Thinkstock

I went to a barber in Wellington this week and got a surprise when it came time to pay with a credit card - there was a "processing fee" to pay.

I use my credit card regularly for these sorts of day-to-day purchases, to get the reward points and some "free" credit for 55 days, given I pay off the balance in full before any interest is due.

I was about to pay with Eftpos, but was curious to see how much the fee was because it wasn't stated on the sign. The haircut cost $35 and the processing fee was 87c. Given I'm no Rainman, I later used my calculator to work out the fee was 2.5 per cent of the total cost. That's high but not too bad, given this barber isn't in a position to negotiate hard with the credit-card processing firms.

Credit-card industry sources tell me the cost to the barber is about 2 per cent, so this is about fair. Although I have plenty of choices around where I work, I'll go to the barber again. The haircut made me look slightly less ugly and I didn't feel ripped off.

Airlines, taxis and online concert ticket sales are in another league of ripping off customers with their flat-fee credit-card charges, which can end up costing 5 to 10 per cent of the purchase price.

This makes me much grumpier than my visit to the barber, not only because the fee is unfairly high but because I have no choice. Anyone buying a return domestic fare online from Air New Zealand with a credit card will pay $8 for a "card payment fee", which is $4 a flight.

Jetstar's "card payment fee" is $5 a flight or $10 return. For most flights, that means the fee is 5 to 10 per cent, which is vastly higher than the 1 per cent or lower which the airlines pay the credit-card companies. The airlines say the fee simply covers their overall costs of selling tickets online, but that's disingenuous.

The airlines are using this over-charging for credit cards on main-trunk domestic flights to subsidise their less profitable foreign routes and the entire cost of their online sales process. It would be like a hotel charging customers $10 for using power in their rooms that cost the hotel $2, and arguing it also covers the cost of putting lights and power points in the room. Taxis are just as bad. Depending on the length of the trip, the flat fees of $2 or more are far north of 5 per cent.

The online ticket duopoly of Ticketmaster and Ticketek is even worse, adding on all manner of fees as well as collecting a commission from the ticket itself.

My main complaint is I have no choice. The POLi online banking system offered by the airlines is actively discouraged by banks as being unsafe.

Using a call centre incurs yet more fees. These flat fees for credit cards are an egregious rip-off. Companies wanting to keep customers happy (or at least not feeling plundered) should do what my barber did and charge a simple percentage which is close to the 1 to 2 per cent they pay for the service.

Bernard Hickey

Bernard is an economics columnist for the NZ Herald

Bernard Hickey is the publisher of Hive News, a Wellington-based political and economic subscription news email service. He also writes for Interest.co.nz and appears regularly on Radio New Zealand, Radio Live, TVNZ and TV3. He has been a financial journalist for 25 years, having worked for Reuters, the Financial Times Group and Fairfax Media.

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