James Ihaka

James Ihaka is a Herald reporter based in Hamilton.

Watchdog eyeing card fees

Commerce Commission checking if retail costs have come down since rules changed.

Credit card surcharges may not have resulted in the lower prices for the consumer that were predicted when they were introduced. Photo / Thinkstock
Credit card surcharges may not have resulted in the lower prices for the consumer that were predicted when they were introduced. Photo / Thinkstock

Credit card surcharges may not have resulted in the lower prices for the consumer that were predicted when they were introduced.

The Commerce Commission is surveying more than 3000 businesses to gather data so it can evaluate the impact of an agreement it struck with credit card companies Visa and MasterCard three years ago, part of which allowed retailers to charge extra on payments made with credit cards.

The deal was meant to help retailers, who before then incurred bank charges or interchange fees for accepting credit card payments but were unable to pass these costs on to their customers.

The agreement allowing credit card surcharges was meant to save retailers up to $80 million and allow them to charge customers less for goods and services.

But Employers Manufacturers Association chief executive Kim Campbell said anecdotal evidence he had received was that prices had not come down since credit card surcharges were introduced.

"Nobody is lowering prices anywhere because of this, that's for sure," he said.

"I just know from when I hear people that nobody is doing that ... overall has it had the bigger effect on prices? I don't know."

He said credit cards were among the banks' most profitable ventures and more business was being pushed online with virtually all of these transactions bearing credit card surcharges.

"What I think happened was people got used to paying the credit card fee and that was the end of it and now they just do it."

Consumer New Zealand editor-in-chief David Naulls said the review was "extremely timely".

He said the experience in Australia found a high number of retailers had charged excessive fees - despite the merchant fees that businesses pay to their banks dropping.

He said according to the Banking Ombudsman the banks' processing fee to merchants was about 1.5 to 2 per cent - less than what was in some cases passed on to consumers.

"Some fees we've seen seem to be more than these rates, although we don't know the overall rate the business pays on all its transactions."

He said Ticketek charged a card-processing fee of between 2.45 per cent and 2.6 per cent for certain events while Ticketmaster charged a fee of up to 2.3 per cent for selected events and both charged a "transaction fee" for all bookings.

Consumer New Zealand also found that booking a flight with Jetstar via credit card in some circumstances could add another 6 per cent to the fare.

Retailers' Association spokeswoman Louise Evans McDonald believed not many retailers were imposing credit card surcharges.

"I find it quite frequent in other sectors but not specifically in retail - why would you give an opportunity for a customer to go down the road?"

Commerce Commission spokeswoman Allanah Kalafatelis said the survey would be completed this year but information-gathering and analysis would continue.

The charges

What is the survey about?
The Commerce Commission is gathering data so it can evaluate what impact the changes it made in 2009 have had on competition between the various parties in the credit card markets.

What happened before 2009?
When customers paid using their credit cards, the retailer or service provider could not recover an interchange fee the banks imposed on it for credit card use. As a result the cost had to be factored into all prices - increasing the cost of every item or service sold by businesses accepting Visa or MasterCard.

What were the changes?
The Commerce Commission struck an agreement with seven banks on interchange fees for credit cards after alleging anti-competitive practices. The agreement allowed retailers to introduce a surcharge on credit card transactions.

What did the Commerce Commission predict when the changes were introduced?
Chairman Mark Berry said this would result in lower interchange fees, creating greater transparency and competition in the future. He expected savings of up to $80 million over the next three years and a reduction in business costs for retailers who offer credit card payment options. He expected to see this passed on to consumers over time through lower retail prices.

- NZ Herald

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