March 15, 2018
by Angelo Grecco, Chief Business Development Officer, CardConnect
Whether you’re a payments veteran or new to the industry, you probably have come across a few buzzwords that are now part of your everyday vocabulary. Some of these terms are relatively easy to grasp—PCI compliance, point-to-point encryption and tokenization, for instance, but others are a bit more complex, such as “interchange” and “interchange optimization.”
We’ve all heard different payment providers claim to offer the lowest rate possible with guaranteed savings thanks to interchange optimization, but few understand how a merchant realizes these savings.
Interchange is composed of fees, rates and guidelines that are established and governed by the card associations and card-issuing banks. Merchants must pay interchange fees in order to accept credit cards. These rates are across the board (they don’t vary by processor) and merchants cannot be exempt from them. While interchange fees cover the costs and risks associated with processing payments (e.g. chargebacks and fraud), it is important to note that processors do not derive revenue from these fees—they are paid directly to the card-issuing banks.
There are hundreds of interchange cost structures based on merchant industry, card type, payment acceptance environment (card-present, card-not-present) and transaction size. Every time a transaction is processed, it is assigned an interchange “category” that has an associated rate. A variety of factors determine a transaction’s interchange category, but sometimes a transaction will not qualify for its appropriate category, resulting in a more expensive rate. The good news is, there are certain steps merchants can take to ensure they receive the most favorable rate.
Here are a few tried and true tips for qualifying for the most advantageous interchange rate:
- Follow all POS Prompts. For CNP transactions that are key-entered manually into a POS, a merchant should ensure she or he is completing all of the POS prompts to capture and verify the necessary information, such as AVS (Address Verification Service), to seek the lowest interchange rate. Skipping any of these prompts could result in a higher rate.
- Don’t settle for late batches. Merchants should settle their batches within 24 hours to obtain the lowest possible rate. Settling batches after 24 or 48 hours will produce higher rates.
Getting Down to Business
At the end of the day, every merchant would like to receive optimal rates, and that’s where interchange optimization comes in. Interchange optimization is the implementation of “best processing practices” to qualify a merchant for low-cost interchange rates. These best practices primarily refer to the inclusion of line-item details for every processed transaction and correspond to industry-specific program requirements created by the major card brands.
While many merchants benefit from optimized rates, merchants that specialize in business-to-business and business-to-government services realize the most savings. This is because these businesses typically accept purchasing cards (“P-cards”), which capture Level II and Level III data. P-cards are designed to streamline accounting processes and enhance reporting by collecting additional data at the point of sale. The average merchant collects Level I data when processing a payment (i.e., basic billing information), but Level II and III data present a more complete picture of the transaction, such as customer codes, PO numbers and Tax IDs. Providing Level II and Level III data helps diminish the threat of fraudulent activity, while also significantly optimizing a merchant’s interchange rates, as card associations incentivize merchants for providing in-depth data.
Show Me the Savings
To benefit from interchange optimization, merchants must process transactions via a gateway that supports Level II/Level III processing. But that’s not all. The merchant must be on a pricing model that actually passes interchange savings to them—otherwise, the savings will effectively be useless. It is recommended that merchants use “interchange-plus” pricing (also known as interchange pass-through).
Interchange-plus pricing offers a transparent pricing structure based on the three main costs associated with credit card acceptance: assessments (fees implemented by the card brands), interchange and processing services. With this type of pricing structure, the processor charges the merchant the actual cost of the interchange and assessment for each transaction (rates are not changed for the benefit of the processor’s pocket!), plus a fixed markup fee. A markup covers the processor’s costs, but that’s not to say a merchant doesn’t benefit from a markup in some capacity. Markups remain the same, regardless of the type of card a merchant accepts or how it is processed. In other words, there are no qualified, mid-qualified or non-qualified rates, which are common in “bundled” (or “tiered”) pricing. With a bundled pricing structure, the processor creates transactional tiers with assigned rates, making it difficult to achieve optimal interchange rates.
Because interchange-plus pricing separates the costs of interchange and assessment fees from the processor’s markup, the pricing is:
- Transparent. Statements include the assessment, interchange and processing services fees, so merchants know exactly what they’re paying for.
- Less expensive. Due to its inherent transparency, it is significantly more difficult for processors to include (and subsequently hide) hidden fees and surcharges.
It’s important to realize that interchange optimization has no impact for merchants with “flat-rate” pricing. In recent years, this pricing structure has become increasingly popular, mostly because it is incredibly easy to understand the associated fees. This is because flat-rate pricing applies one rate to all of a merchant’s transactions (and in some cases, an additional per-transaction fee). The only problem with this is that the fixed rate covers the interchange costs and processor’s profit and does not fluctuate (meaning the rate is fixed and do not allow for savings). Additionally, interchange details are not usually provided in a flat rate processing statement, so merchants do not have visibility into the potential savings they could take advantage of.
To review: Interchange optimization is the implementation of best processing habits to qualify a merchant for the lowest rate possible for every transaction. One way this is accomplished is through the passing of Level II and Level III data. To ensure your business has the most beneficial rate, it is important to understand the fees you’re being charged, and if interchange savings are passed directly to you.
Angelo Grecco is the Chief Business Development Officer at CardConnect and brings with him more than 15 years of industry experience. Prior to founding Allied Bankcard, he worked as vice president of Operations at Allied Merchant Services, controlling the day-to-day needs of the company’s agents and merchants. Angelo is a graduate of Indiana University with a degree in Business Management.
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