Surcharge tempts, Hy-Vee says no

January 31, 2013

Who will follow Hy-Vee’s pro-consumer stance on credit-card surcharges?

Consumers punched by an effective 2% income-tax hike (the end of the Bush-era payroll tax cut) days later became vulnerable to a 4% surcharge when they pay for goods with a credit card.

Figure in the impact of food-price inflation too, and the trade must wonder how far away a true spending recovery is.

Credit-card interchange fees, a long and hotly contested issue between Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express and retailers, have had stores swallow transaction costs that typically range between 1.5% and 3.5%.  Now, a rules change allows merchants to impose a credit-card usage fee on shoppers.

Dare they?

The Lempert Report doubts it.  In fact, when the news broke, we at TLR saw the new rule as an opportunity for retailers, card issuers or both to break ranks and show they’re on the side of consumers.  Hy-Vee Food Stores became the first to do so publicly.  The chain posted this message to its Facebook page this week, Supermarket News reported first:  “You might have heard or read about new rules that allow merchants to charge customers a fee on credit card transactions as a way to recoup some of the costs associated with accepting this method of payment.  Hy-Vee has no plans at this time to charge fees for using credit cards in our stores.”

We believe other retailers will quickly follow because it is the right step to take for consumers, and it can help set merchants apart.  Only 10 states currently prohibit these surcharges, according to TIME magazine:  California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma and Texas.  While shoppers using debit cards can avoid the pass-along fee, debit cards have their own shortcomings, such as fewer protections and overdraft charges. 

Back in 1988, armed with insights that 90% of its passengers preferred to sit in no-smoking sections and 80% didn’t smoke, Northwest Airlines became the nation’s first major air carrier to ban smoking on all of its North American flights.  The company’s stance became effective the same day as a new Federal law that banned smoking on domestic flights of two hours or less, according to a New York Times account.  Northwest gained a marketing edge as a result.

Supermarkets and card issuers that stake the high ground today with regard to potential consumer surcharges will visibly demonstrate their lack of greed and align with powerful shopper sentiments about fairness and spending.