Credit cards are seen in Montreal on December 12, 2012. Industry groups say small businesses are being hammered by high credit card fees on online purchases as the shift toward e-commerce continues amid the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Credit cards are seen in Montreal on December 12, 2012. Industry groups say small businesses are being hammered by high credit card fees on online purchases as the shift toward e-commerce continues amid the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Small businesses feeling the pinch of credit-card fees as e-commerce ramps up

The rise in e-commerce sales ‘inevitably squeezes out cash’ from vendors

Industry groups say small businesses are being hammered by high credit-card fees on online purchases as the shift toward e-commerce continues.

Visa and MasterCard reduced the fees they collect from businesses to an average annual rate of 1.4 per cent from 1.5 per cent under an agreement with Ottawa that took effect last year. But the fees remain higher than in many Western countries, particularly for online transactions, trade organizations say.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business says the proportion of its 100,000 members that rely on online purchases has doubled to 40 per cent since March, when lockdowns to fight the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered storefronts across the country.

“Smaller companies tend to pay higher fees than large companies do, because they don’t have the volumes,” said CFIB vice-president Corinne Pullman.

She said “there’s no doubt” digital rates should come down, and that fees should be clearer and more transparent for merchants.

While Visa and Mastercard’s overall annual rates sit at about 1.4 per cent in Canada, fees vary by transaction depending on factors that range from business type to whether a PIN code was used.

The rise in e-commerce sales “inevitably squeezes out cash” from vendors, who would otherwise draw more revenue from cash or debit transactions, said Retail Council of Canada vice-president Karl Littler.

“Mastercard did a deeper drop for those in-store transactions, but concurrently hiked the amounts for their online,” he said, referring to recent fee adjustments. “And obviously that has implications given the odd outcomes that COVID has created.”

Online retail sales rose 116 per cent to $3.91 billion in May from $1.81 billion a year earlier, according to Statistics Canada. They were up 68 per cent year over year to $3.07 billion in October, the last month for which figures are available.

Even sharper spikes are likely in more recent months amid the second wave of the pandemic in Canada, prompting heavier reliance on credit-card payments.

The CFIB and the retail council are calling on the federal government to negotiate lower fees from credit-card firms.

Finance Department spokeswoman Anna Arneson said the government “will continue to work closely with small businesses to ensure they have the support” during the pandemic, but cited no plans to bring credit-card firms back to the table.

Visa said e-commerce transaction rates are “lower than they have ever been,” with steeper rate reductions for various small businesses such as restaurants and variety stores.

Mastercard says it is committed to its voluntary agreement with Ottawa that established the 1.4 per cent average rate.

Werner Antweiler, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, said merchants “generally hate the premium cards” in particular due to “excessively expensive” processing fees.

“In a world of digital commerce, the idea to pay two to three per cent on each transaction is a kind of tax, when in fact the transaction has only minimal costs that are nowhere near these amounts and are in fact independent of the transaction volume,” Antweiler said.

The average rate reduction to 1.4 per cent from 1.5 per cent would amount to just $100 worth of savings for businesses for every $100,000 in credit-card sales, according to the retail council.

One goal of the lower rates was to enable smaller firms to avoid a big competitive disadvantage compared to larger companies, which have more leverage in negotiating for reduced fees.

The government has also said the reduction could help consumers because businesses will be able to keep prices lower.

In November 2014, Visa and MasterCard voluntarily agreed to reduce their average effective fees to 1.5 per cent over five years — a period that began in April 2015.

A Finance Department review of the credit-card code of conduct is ongoing.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dr. Wayne John Edwards, 66, died Tuesday at Chinook Regional Hospital. (Cornerstone Funeral Home)
Lethbridge doctor becomes 7th Alberta health-care worker to die from COVID-19

Dr. Wayne John Edwards, who was 66, died Tuesday at the Chinook Regional Hospital in the southern Alberta city

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
VIDEO: Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

A vial of some of the first 500,000 AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada secured. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio
Canada’s 2nd blood clot confirmed in Alberta after AstraZeneca vaccine

The male patient, who is in his 60s, is said to be recovering

The funeral of Britain’s Prince Philip in Windsor, England, on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Philip died April 9 at the age of 99. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
PHOTOS: Prince Philip laid to rest Saturday as sombre queen sits alone

The entire royal procession and funeral took place out of public view within the grounds of Windsor Castle

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Expectations high as Trudeau Liberals get ready to unveil first pandemic budget

The Liberals will look to thread an economic needle with Monday’s budget

Doses of the Moderna COVID‑19 vaccine in a freezer trailer, to be transported to Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Pfizer to increase vaccine deliveries in Canada as Moderna supply slashed

Moderna plans to ship 650,000 doses of its vaccine to Canada by the end of the month, instead of the expected 1.2 million

A empty classroom is pictured at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020. The Alberta government says schools in Calgary will move to at-home learning starting Monday for students in grades 7 to 12.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Calgary schools to shift to at-home learning for grades 7 to 12 due to COVID-19

The change, due to COVID-19, is to last for two weeks

A man wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as he walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
COVID-19 spike in B.C. could overwhelm B.C. hospitals: modelling group

There are 397 people are in hospital due to the virus, surpassing a previous high of 374 seen in December

Ron Rauch and his wife Audrey are photographed at their home in Victoria, Friday, March 5, 2021. Their daughter Lisa Rauch died on Christmas Day 2019 when a tactical officer with the Victoria Police Department shot her in the back of the head with plastic bullets after barricading herself in a room that was on fire. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. families push for changes as special committee examines provincial Police Act

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth acknowledged the need to update the legislation last year

Most Read