Surcharging - the new norm?

22:13, Jul 22 2013

Sometimes I storm out of shops.

I do it politely, but there are certain treatments I will not put up with.

Overly pushy sales people press my button, as does idiocy and lack of knowledge in a salesperson.

But the last time I headed for the door in a stew with my potential purchases discarded on the counter, it was over a recently introduced credit card surcharge.

I haven't been back since.

But if I thought my act of defiance would make any difference, I was informed this week by the head of a major credit card company how wrong I was.


The shackles came off business in 2009, when Visa, Mastercard and other card companies were told by the Commerce Commission they could no longer prevent surcharging.

For a few years, not much changed.

Now the tide is racing in.

There was a similar pattern in Australia, I'm told by Visa country head Caroline Ada.

New Zealand is now experiencing an acceleration of surcharging and the latest to join is a biggie. From 1 August Telecom will begin charging 1.5 per cent for credit card payments.

Surcharging is fast becoming the new norm, as it is now in Australia.

But is it fair?

Retailers argue that accepting a credit card payment brings costs and it is only fair to pass them on, otherwise non-credit card customers are effectively being subsidised by other ones.

OK, but credit card payments also bring benefits to business, most notably causing a drop in cash and cheque payments which are expensive to administer, and a rise in purchases on credit which otherwise the retailers wouldn't get.

Credit cards have also helped fuel the rise in internet commerce, which has allowed businesses to cut costs dramatically.

All this is conveniently forgotten in the narrow cost recovery argument.

Based on this argument, chatty people should be charged more as they take up more time at the till, as should change fumblers who take up even more.

I'd suggest a small levy on people who haven't got their Onecard or FlyBuys card ready to swipe as well as they impose a real time cost on retailers.

OK, I am having a bit of a laugh, but studies estimate the costs of cash transactions to retailers at between 1.3 per cent to 2.5 per cent of the value of a purchase.

But what really gets my goat about surcharges is they are so varied.

Take the councils. Why does Tauranga levy 1.3 per cent, while Auckland City charges 2 per cent? Why is Waikato Regional Council's unctuously termed credit card "convenience" fee even higher at 2.3 per cent?

Then there are those who levy a flat fee regardless of what kind of percentage of the overall cost it adds up to.

It doesn't feel like this is entirely about cost recovery, especially when you consider my bog-standard Visa card costs less to accept than many other kinds of cards, but I get no discount on the surcharge to reflect that.

As consumers, our options are limited in a market dominated by large commercial enterprises who tend to march in lock-step.

What we can do is complain, favour businesses which do not surcharge though the number of these is diminishing, and seek to avoid the levy by choosing other forms of payment such as cash and cheques.

Businesses should engender loyalty in customers by guaranteeing their surcharges are set up to earn them no sneaky profits. Any volunteers to kick that off? Didn't think so.

Tell businesses what you really think of them, politely.
Seek the cheapest way to pay.
The Commerce Commission will only investigate if you complain.

Rob Stock is a journalist with the Fairfax Business Bureau and money editor of the Sunday Star-Times.