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Merchants hope to curb credit card use

Nancy Katica, co-owner of the Vashon Bookshop, says she hopes the new sign will remind customers to use cash or checks when they can. - Matthew Olds/Staff Photo
Nancy Katica, co-owner of the Vashon Bookshop, says she hopes the new sign will remind customers to use cash or checks when they can.
— image credit: Matthew Olds/Staff Photo

Several Vashon merchants are banding together to give consumers a gentle nudge: They plan to post hand-calligraphed cards this week and next that ask patrons to consider using cash or checks.

The touch is light. The cards will say simply, “We prefer cash or checks.”

But the effort underscores a significant issue for many small retailers, especially on Vashon, where most merchants operate with an exceedingly thin profit margin: Americans’ penchant for plastic is costing retailers a lot of money.

Retailers on Vashon estimate that it costs them between 20 and 50 cents — in both “swipe” fees the banks charge retailers and a percent of each sale that they have to pay — every time a customer uses either a credit or debit card. Some cards, such as those that give the customer airline miles or cash rewards, cost even more.

Bettie Edwards, a long-time Vashon retailer and owner of The Little House, put it wryly: “We’re buying your airplane trip.”

In several interviews, merchants stressed that they’d rather people use plastic than not shop at all.

“We don’t want to lose customers. That would have a counter effect,” said Morgan 

Guion, who co-owns the Vashon Bookshop. 

At the same time, they note, the fees add up. Guion estimates there are months when she spends $350 on credit and debit card fees. Jackie Merrill, who just closed Movie Magic but still runs a coffee stand, says she had months when the fees topped $450. And Edwards said her fees, while they vary widely, have climbed as high as $1,100 during particularly busy months.

Some retailers say they’re not concerned about the fees, considered the cost of doing business at a time when few carry cash in their pockets. “I just factor it in,” said Priscilla Schleigh, who owns Giraffe, a fair trade shop. 

But others say the fees are affecting not only what the consumer pays but also the amount of money retailers have leftover at the end of each month to support the community. Vashon’s businesses are regularly asked to donate money or goods to fundraisers and could donate more if it weren’t for these fees, Edwards noted.

“I’d rather give that money to education. I’d rather donate it to the school foundation,” she said. “As it is now, it’s money that goes out of our community.”

Guion concurred. “We’ve cut back a little bit in our donations. We could use that money we’re now spending on cards to increase our donations.”

The issue has been playing out at a national level in recent months due to new rules — put forward by the Federal Reserve and scheduled to go into effect next month — that would put a cap on swipe fees banks charge for debit card use. Credit card fees, generally the higher of the two, are not included in the effort.

With the new rules looming, several banks and credit card companies have launched an aggressive campaign pushing for a delay or even a repeal of the cap, saying the effort is a ruse by corporate retailers such as Walmart and Target to rake in larger profits. Lower fees won’t help consumers but will instead undermine small community banks and credit unions, industry opponents to the federal cap argue. 

The retail industry — in a kind of clash of the titans — has pushed back, arguing in commentaries they’ve placed in various newspapers and on websites that the swipe fees are hidden costs that are inflating prices. The fees, according to one retail industry-backed website, reflect “the same reckless, predatory lending practices that led to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown.”

Shannon Ellis-Brock, vice president of marketing and business development for the Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union, which has a branch on Vashon, said the small credit union, like many others in the country, is opposed to the federal government’s cap on debit card swipe fees.

“It’s not like consumers are going to see any cost-savings. ... It’s a situation that’s being pushed by big business,” she said.

At the same time, she added, she supports the efforts by Vashon’s merchants to encourage a cash economy. “I think it’s great,” she said. “I know that in a lot of small communities, the businesses do that.”

On Vashon, retailers have been struggling with the issue for years, an effort that has grown more concerted as the fees have climbed and the recession has made their profit margin thinner. A few Island businesses, for instance, offer cash discounts. Some won’t accept credit cards at all, others only if the bill is over a certain amount.

At Quartermaster Inn in Burton, Troy Kindred and Marie Browne took another approach after they analyzed their expenses last spring and found that credit card fees were their second-highest expense, right after their lease payment. Frustrated by the huge fees, they wanted to institute a no-credit card policy for meals under $100 but were worried they’d lose customers, Kindred said. Some might head into Vashon town to get cash, he noted, and not return.

So last fall, they bought their own ATM, ensuring that those who planned to spend less than $100 on a meal and didn’t have cash wouldn’t have to leave to address the situation, Kindred said. The fee for use is $2. Kindred and Browne, in an effort to soften the impact of the fee, donate $1 to a Vashon nonprofit each time the machine is used.

Financially, the ATM has proven its worth. Within three months, the money the couple saved in credit card fees covered the $2,000 cost of the machine, Kindred said.

As for customer response, “We’ve had mixed reviews. Some get really upset about it,” Kindred acknowledged.

But in those situations, he’ll often swipe a credit card — while letting customers know that the fees hurt small community businesses.

“I tell them, ‘Your miles don’t come from your bank; they’re from us. The credit card company doesn’t care if I’m in business or not. But my community and friends want me to stay in business,’” Kindred said.

But some businesses have found that a no-credit card stance can backfire. At Engels Repair & Towing, Lou and Paul Engels tried to institute first a $20 minimum for credit card use and then, when customers pushed back, a $10 limit. That, too, was met with resistance, Paul Engels said.

“Finally, it was just like ‘the hell with this,’” he said, and they dropped the policy.

Paul Engels said he understands consumers’ resistence. A meal at a restaurant is something people enjoy, he noted, but buying gas is “not a pleasure purchase.” 

Even so, it remains a source of frustration at the small service station on Maury Island, where people sometimes use plastic to purchase such small amounts of gas that their profit on the sale is negligible.

“I’d be driving a newer car if it weren’t for those payments every month,” quipped Lou Engels.

 

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