It might be imagined that during a period of prolonged economic downturn, retailers would be doing everything they could to stop customers taking their business elsewhere. They would, for example, not take the risk of imposing excessive credit-card surcharges.

That, anyway, was a theory when, in 2009, retailers were given the go-ahead to pass on transaction fees to card users.

So much for theory. As the response to a story last week in this newspaper's ConsumerWatch section confirmed, many retailers are all too ready to impose surcharges far in excess of what banks charge them to process the transaction. For them, it has become a source of easy money.

The worst offenders are companies that enjoy market power and do much of their business online. Feedback to the Herald on Sunday places airlines, concert ticket sellers, parking companies, tourist operators and taxi companies at the top of this list.


While many retailers are happy to set their surcharge at an acceptable 1 to 3 per cent, the charges imposed by others range up to and beyond 10 per cent of an advertised price. In many cases, they are simply exploiting the dearth of practical payment alternatives to credit cards.

Often, the situation is made worse by online customers not being made aware of the surcharge until they get towards the end of a transaction.

Much of the attention has focused on Air New Zealand. Its surcharges, which include $4 on all domestic bookings and $17.50 on most international flights, have been described as "quite draconian" by Consumer NZ chief executive Suzanne Chetwin. To add insult to injury, the relevant surcharge may be imposed on all legs of flights.

This year, following allegations that it is breaching the Fair Trading Act, the airline has been investigated by the Commerce Commission. The practice of many taxi companies warrants similar scrutiny. Some charge a flat surcharge, often of around $2. This is well beyond the pale if the taxi ride is short and costs only $10.

The problem is not unique to this country. Australia experienced a similar situation after allowing retailers to impose a surcharge in 2003. The policy was designed to apply user-pays and produce greater transparency. Retailers were able to recover the transaction fee from credit card-holders, rather than passing it on in the higher prices paid by all customers, including those who used cash.

In theory, this should have meant prices decreased. In practice, it was the catalyst for the same sort of exploitation that occurred subsequently in this country. Finally, Australia's Reserve Bank decided in the middle of last year that enough was enough. It banned excessive surcharges.

It took Australia the best part of a decade to take action.

There should be no such delay here. The Commerce Commission is surveying more than 3000 businesses to assess the situation. This inquiry will surely confirm that in far too many cases customers are suffering from surcharges that bear little relationship to retailers' costs. As much was highlighted by Mastercard last year, when it accused retailers of profiteering from surcharges and called for a cap to be set.

The Commerce Commission should require no further prompting before banning excessive surcharges. In the meantime, consumers are not powerless. Some independent petrol stations have stopped imposing surcharges because of the hassle of arguing about them with customers.

The Herald on Sunday has also begun a Facebook campaign to identify excessive surcharges and bolster consumer pressure. Ultimately, customers decide if a surcharge is acceptable. If they think this is not the case, they should be taking their business elsewhere - whenever and wherever that is possible.