Business

Small businesses root for Walmart in fee battle with Visa

Many small businesses are cheering on Walmart for taking on Visa in a public battle over credit card fees. Smaller merchants feel gouged by transaction fees and hope the public dispute will lead to change.

Many small merchants say they're being gouged by credit card companies

Zane Caplansky, owner of Caplansky's Deli in Toronto, says all credit card fees for small merchants are too high. (Zane Caplansky)

Small businesses aren't usually in the habit of championing Walmart. But these days, many have nothing but praise for the retail behemoth, which is engaged in a public battle over merchant credit card fees.

"It's nice that a considerable retail giant like Walmart stands up and says, you know what, enough is enough and we're just not going to accept it anymore," says Paul Simmonds, president of Robert Simmonds Clothing in Fredericton.

Walmart announced last weekend that "unacceptably high" transaction charges have prompted it to stop accepting Visa cards starting in mid-July at its more than 400 Canadian locations.

Many small merchants say high credit card transaction fees charged by all dealers — including Visa and MasterCard — are hurting their bottom line. So they hope the Walmart-Visa squabble will raise awareness and perhaps even spark change.

"I hope this is a public shaming and these guys stop dinging retailers," says Toronto restaurant owner Zane Caplansky.

Merchant fees: 'Dirty little secrets'

On this day, Caplansky is scrambling to fill a big order of smoked meat sandwiches for a client. The deal will bring in $300, but he'll lose 1.5 per cent in a transaction charge because the customer is paying with a credit card.

Caplansky says he pays, on average, 1.5 per cent for both Visa and MasterCard transaction fees, and he believes that's too high.

He calculates he pays tens of thousands of dollars in credit card charges every year just at his flagship Caplansky's Deli location.

But Caplansky says everyone wants to pay with plastic these days, and small businesses like his have no choice but to accept all types of cards.

"It's one of those dirty little secrets that we have in the industry of how much we pay the credit card companies and how little leverage we have," he says.

So the restaurateur is thrilled that Walmart has chosen to take a stand. Caplansky hopes it will lead to lower merchant fees that, in turn, will also lead to lower prices for consumers.

"I will be watching and cheering [Walmart] on as loudly as I can, and I think it's great that somebody finally stood up to these bullies," he says.

'Everybody wants to earn points'

Toronto clothing store owner Tom Mihalik is also cheering on Walmart. He says he too would like to decline a major credit card to make a point about high fees. As a small retailer, though, he believes it would jeopardize his business. 

"I might as well close the door," says the owner of Tom's Place. "Everybody wants to earn points. That's why everybody's using their credit cards."
Tom Mihalik, owner of the clothing store Tom's Place in Toronto, says he's cheering on Walmart in the fight for lower credit card fees. (Tom Mihalik)

Mihalik adds that, as a small business owner, his stance would have no influence on a credit card company. "It would make no difference for Visa if I dropped them. I'm not strong enough. But Walmart is strong enough."

Indeed, Visa tells CBC News that Walmart is one of the most important clients for the company around the world.

Visa also says it wants to resolve its dispute with the retail giant.

"We absolutely want to be everywhere consumers want to shop. And that includes Walmart stores," says Rob Livingston, president and country manager of Visa Canada.

Smaller fees not in the plan

But it doesn't appear the dispute has Visa re-evaluating its relationship with other businesses.

In 2014, both Visa and MasterCard agreed to cap the amount they charge retailers at an effective average rate of 1.5 per cent, for five years.

"We believe that the rates we have in the marketplace are fair and equitable for all participants," says Livingston. He adds that Visa has already reduced credit card rates for some small businesses.

MasterCard told CBC News it also believes it's doing enough to help businesses. "We'll continue to bring a fair and balanced approach," said spokeswoman Serda Evren in an email.

The Retail Council of Canada concedes that the Walmart dispute probably won't open the floodgates on the issue of high fees. But the current model will be under challenge, says Karl Littler, vice-president of public affairs for the council.

He argues that at an average 1.5 per cent, credit card transaction fees in Canada are too high.

They "are at a punitively high level for an industry that works on tight margins," he says.

Will Ottawa take action?

Visa and MasterCard don't appear inclined to make changes, but already politicians in Ottawa are feeling compelled to address the issue.

In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said the government is waiting for a report on the capped fee agreement from Visa and MasterCard before deciding "how we can ensure this market stays competitive in the future."

Yesterday, Senator Pierrette Ringuette announced that she will table legislation this fall to set limits on credit card merchant fees.

"Canada's fees remain some of the highest in the world, and nowhere near the levels of countries that have placed limits," said Ringuette in a statement, referring to the European Union and Australia, which have much lower fees.

This is the fifth time the senator has attempted to pass her bill. But this is the first time the issue has taken centre stage in the public eye, buoyed by the high-profile battle between Walmart and Visa.

Small business owners who want lower credit card fees hope that might just be enough to spark some sort of change.

"Walmart takes these actions and everybody takes notice," says the restaurateur Caplansky.

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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