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Shoppers may pay fees for using plastic

Retailers hoping to offset fees they pay to Visa and MasterCard may soon be able to charge shoppers for paying with plastic instead of cash.

Kai Ryssdal: You've heard this question before at the grocery store, I'm sure: Paper or plastic? Not much of a difference cost-wise at the Safeway.

Perhaps quite a big difference when the question is whether you're paying with cash or credit. Stores can't charge you more when you use a credit card, even though they have to pay Visa and MasterCard a fee when you swipe your card.

Depending on how an upcoming court case in New York turns out, though, stores may soon be able to charge a fee of their own to you for choosing plastic over paper. Marketplace's Stacey Vanek Smith explains.


Stacey Vanek Smith: It may pay to Discover, but soon you may have to pay to Visa or MasterCard. Merchants like Payless Shoes and Safeway are suing to be able to charge consumers a fee to offset the expense of taking the cards. A settlement is expected this summer.

Bert Ely: Consumers should not panic. 

Banking consultant Bert Ely says even if so-called surcharging is allowed, most business will be careful about adding on fees.   

Ely: I just don’t think we will see an explosion across the board of surcharging. Instead, I think we’ll see some experimentation and kind of a question of what will the market bear.

The U.S. wouldn’t be the first country to let businesses charge customers for plastic privileges. Marc Abbey is a managing partner at First Annapolis, a payments industry consulting firm.

Marc Abbey: The big test case has been Australia, where several years ago surcharging became permitted.  

Abbey says businesses have been all over the map in terms of what they’re charging.

Abbey: It can be $5 to $10. In some cases higher, often lower. But a lot of variation, mostly driven by competition between merchants.

Australia did have to place limits on surcharges after a some businesses went a little fee crazy. Qantas Airlines started charging a $30 card use fee for international bookings. One cab company charged a 10 percent fee. How have Aussie consumers reacted?

Abbey: There hasn’t been a obvious change in consumer payment behavior. 

Abbey says card companies aren’t too concerned because, at least down under, the convenience of a card seems to have trumped any outrage over fees.

In New York, I’m Stacey Vanek Smith for Marketplace.

About the author

Stacey Vanek Smith is a senior reporter for Marketplace, where she covers banking, consumer finance, housing and advertising.

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