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Credit card companies see big opportunity in small business spending

Justin Ho May 17, 2024
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The competition for business owners’ wallets has been heating up, despite today’s subdued spending environment. visualspace via Getty Images

Credit card companies see big opportunity in small business spending

Justin Ho May 17, 2024
Heard on:
The competition for business owners’ wallets has been heating up, despite today’s subdued spending environment. visualspace via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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Over the last couple weeks, the government has released several reports suggesting that the economy is moderating. This week, the Commerce Department said retail sales were basically flat between March and April. The Labor Department’s most recent jobs report was fairly soft. And GDP came in much lower in the first quarter than in the previous quarter.

American Express recently shed some light on that moderation when it reported its most recent quarterly earnings. It said business spending, in particular, has been fairly slow — spending on its business credit cards by small and medium-sized businesses rose just one percent compared to the same time a year ago.

But American Express also said that there’s a lot of opportunity in the small business sector. And despite today’s subdued spending environment, the competition for business owners’ wallets has been heating up.

Business credit cards work basically the same way as consumer credit cards. Cardholders use them to buy things, rack up a balance and — hopefully — pay it off. But the average business tends to use their card a lot more than the average consumer.

“Sometimes the credit card spend is going upwards of $800,000 a month,” said Jeff Cayley, the owner of Worldwide Cyclery, a mountain bike store in Newbury Park, California.

Cayley said he’ll charge anything he possibly can to his store’s Capital One credit card, ranging from inventory and travel expenses to the internet bill and snacks for the lounge. That’s because the card offers an incentive.

“They give us two percent cash back, unlimited, on all purchases,” Cayley said. “And I have not found anything that’s ever beat that.”

For a consumer, two percent cash back might mean a few bucks here and there. But for Worldwide Cyclery, one month of spending might return upwards of $10,000. Cayley said that can really take the edge off of the company’s expenses.

“When you’re operating a business, you’re looking at your profit and loss statement religiously,” he said. “And if we can get some cash back on that credit card spend, that can go straight to the bottom line of the business, which is really helpful.”

One reason Capital One can give him some cash back is that every time he buys new items for the store from one of his merchants, the merchant pays a fee in order to accept the credit card transaction.

That said, credit card companies earn more of those fees from people doing their everyday shopping than they do from small businesses, said Tony DeSanctis, senior director at the consulting company Cornerstone Advisors. That’s because there are just a lot more consumer credit cards out there.

“Everybody who wants a credit card from a consumer perspective, probably has one, or maybe four,” DeSanctis said. “In the small business space, less than half of small businesses are actually using credit cards on a regular basis.”

And so credit card companies have leaned into trying to win over the half that don’t, said Andrew Davidson, who follows credit card marketing at the research company Comperemedia.

Another reason, Davidson said, is that the number of small businesses has been growing. Last year the number of applications to start a new business hit a record, according to the Census Bureau.

Davidson said it’s not just banks that have been piling into the space with new products. Smaller fintech companies have been, too. Many new cards offer services, including help with taxes and accounting. Davidson said business credit cards have also been getting more specialized.

“Products targeting influencers for example,” Davidson said. “There’s a company that’s launched a small business card just for content creators. There’s a card targeting small business owners who are needing to build up their credit history.”

The success of any of these cards will depend on whether business owners like Marcia St. Hilaire-Finn feel comfortable using them. She owns Bright Start Early Care and Preschool in Washington, D.C., and she’s dialed back spending on her American Express business card. 

St. Hilaire-Finn said enrollment has stalled and the cost of supplies is still rising.

“We only buy must-haves,” St. Hilaire-Finn said. “We don’t buy want-to-have or love-to-have items. So we just cover what we need to provide our services.”

St. Hilaire-Finn is hoping that by later this year she’ll be able to start spending on want-to-haves, and at least one love-to-have: a machine that makes foam for foam parties.

“That would be really fun, and I’m like, ‘We’re gonna get it’, but just not right now,” she said.

St. Hilaire-Finn said she’s expecting her enrollment and her spending to pick up when the next school year starts this fall.

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