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Credit card rules spark study into hidden retailer fees

Credit card issuers collect billions each year in interchange fees, a cost that is passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

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Credit card issuers collect billions each year in interchange fees, a cost that is passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

The new credit card rules President Barack Obama signed into law don't overlook the fees that very few shoppers realize they pay every time they put something on plastic.

The last section of the new law — which restricts credit card fee practices — commissions a six-month General Accounting Office study of interchange fees. That's the roughly 2 percent surcharge retailers pay to card issuers that is tacked onto the price of everything charged.

The results are designed to revive a pitched lobbying battle in Congress between card issuers and retailers, who saw annual interchange fees they pay Visa and MasterCard triple to $48 billion in eight years. Consumers end up paying all of it in higher prices.

Key goals of the study are to determine how much of the fees actually fund promised improvements in payment processing as opposed to profits and billions of reward points designed to prod cardholders to charge only on specific cards.

For consumers, the new law eliminates card issuers' costly "double cycle" billing, bans higher interest rates slapped retroactively on existing balances and requires bills be mailed at least three weeks before payment is due. All are designed to make penalty fees less of a bank profit center.

Retail industry lobbyists are plugging for the right for stores to negotiate their own interchange fee deals, see less of their money paying for Visa and MasterCard marketing and to get federal backing to offer discounts to shoppers who want to pay by cash or check. They would also like to put on each bill what consumers pay in interchange fees, something routinely prohibited by card issuers.

Actually, permitting discounts for cash is supported by current law. But card issuers have written an array of obscure rules into their contracts with retailers that make it almost impossible to do, said Craig Shearman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation.

• • •

Grocers display bananas in the breakfast cereal aisle to give impulse shoppers ideas. Now the Florida Department of Citrus wants to try the same complementary product marketing stunt to push orange juice.

The department's upcoming $15 million advertising and promotion budget envisions a test in select Florida supermarkets that wheels small refrigerators filled with OJ into cereal aisles and other departments where it's not usually found.

The compact little cooler comes plastered with ads, equipped with a motion sensor that cues an OJ jingle when someone passes an armed with a device to spritz a citrus fragrance into your face when the lid is opened.

Sounds delightful.

• • •

Mobile Internet, picture-snapping and endless tweets are draining cell phone batteries faster than ever. So a Miami startup has come up with a patented battery charging station that's showing up in places where people stray too far to juice up.

Hercules Networks sells — for $4,000 and up — its patented ATM-sized kiosks that charge 12 phones at once in 12 plug sizes.

After debuting last summer in Google-sponsored tents at both national political conventions, Hercules kiosks are being deployed to theme parks, malls and convention center trade shows.

A 10-minute charge (good enough to get to about 70 percent capacity) goes for $2. The kiosk also generates money from ads on a 10-minute while-you're-waiting TV show aired on the unit's eye-level LCD screen.

"These days a phone dies in about two hours and it's going to get worse as more wireless uses emerge," said Paul King, Hercules' 25-year-old chief executive. "Our units do best when a company pays to sponsor free charges. It's worth it to have someone captive in your trade show booth for 10 minutes."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Credit card rules spark study into hidden retailer fees 06/01/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 1, 2009 8:36pm]

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