Processing Costs & Fees
Most processors charge processing costs and an assortment of fees. The amount of money that you pay for each transaction you run is the processing cost. This usually includes a small percentage of each sale as well as a small, set per-transaction fee.
There are also fees that you pay on your account each month, such as the monthly fee and monthly gateway fee, and fees that you pay each year, such as the PCI-compliance fee. Depending on your processor, there may also be fees that you pay to get your account up and running, such as a setup fee or a gateway setup fee.
Online Credit Card Processing Pricing Models
There are three pricing models that processors typically use to configure your processing costs: tiered, flat-rate and interchange-plus.
- Tiered Pricing: The most common pricing model in the credit card processing industry is tiered pricing, which is sometimes also referred to as "bucket pricing" or "bundled pricing" because of the way the tiers are determined. Tiered pricing combines the processor's markup with actual processing costs, which are comprised of the interchange rate and the card brand fee. It then bundles them together into tiers, or buckets, to create a simplified pricing structure.
Most processors set three tiers: qualified, mid-qualified and non-qualified. It's important to ask how many tiers there are and what cards are included in each tier because when you call for pricing quotes, many processors only give you the qualified rate unless you specifically ask about the other tiers.
The problem with only receiving the qualified rate is that usually only standard debit and credit cards receive this rate. However, most consumers prefer to pay with rewards or premium cards, and these types of cards are usually processed at the mid- or non-qualified rate. Business credit cards typically receive the non-qualified rate, as do international and government cards.
- Flat-Rate Pricing: The simplest pricing model is flat-rate pricing. In this pricing model, you pay a single rate for each transaction, and there are very few additional fees. There is some variance to how each processor configures their flat rates. Some processors charge you a small percentage of each sale, and the percentage is the same no matter what type of card you accept
Some processors charge a higher rate if you manually key in the transaction. Other processors charge one rate for debit cards and another for credit cards. Some processors add a per-transaction fee to each sale while others don't.
At first glance, this pricing model looks like it would be more expensive than tiered or interchange-plus, but because there are fewer fees, it can actually be the more cost-effective choice, particularly if you process a lower volume of transactions each month. One cost to watch with flat-rate pricing is the per-transaction fee because it can add up quickly if your average ticket amount is on the small side.
- Interchange-Plus Pricing: Industry experts recommend this pricing model because it's the most transparent and often the most cost-effective option. It may initially seem very complex, but once you understand how it works, it's the easiest pricing model to compare.
Interchange-plus pricing comprises the actual processing costs and the processor's markup. The actual processing cost is the interchange rate plus the card-brand fee. These are non-negotiable rates and every processor pays the same amount. The processor's markup is the second part of this pricing model, and it includes a percentage of the sale and a small, set fee. The benefit of this pricing model is that you can see what markup you're actually paying, which helps you choose the most cost-effective service.
Online Credit Card Processing Fees
Depending on the price structure, the processor may charge additional fees that you want to be aware of as you're selecting a processing service. Some are one-time fees for setting up your account or your gateway; others are recurring fees that you pay monthly or annually. You want to make sure that you read the application and contract to find out which fees you can expect to pay.
- Fees May Be Flexible: Before you sign up with a processor, you may be able to negotiate with your rep. You want to get fees waived and get waivers or contract amendments before you sign the contact because it's unlikely the processor will be willing to renegotiate your terms after the contract is signed.
In our testing, we found that some companies were willing to waive early termination fees and PCI-compliance fees. Some were also willing to waive or lower the monthly minimum. If the company you're interested in charges a setup fee or an annual fee, your rep may be willing to waive these fees; the best online credit card processing companies don't commonly charge them.
- Monthly Fee: Most processors charge a monthly service fee, which may also be called a statement fee or a customer service fee. In addition to paying for statement and customer-support services, this fee also typically covers account maintenance. Payment Depot is unique in that it gives you a discount if you pay this fee as an annual lump sum instead of monthly. A few processors, such as Square, Amazon Payments, Moolah and PayJunction, don't charge this fee.
- Monthly Minimum: Approximately half of the processors that we reviewed expect you to meet a monthly minimum. In most cases, the processor expects you to generate this dollar amount in transaction fees each month. On rare occasions, this fee is simply used to ensure that you keep your account active and the full amount of the transaction is applied to it, but most of the time, it's to ensure you're processing enough transactions each month for the processor to consider your account profitable.
Of the processors that require a monthly minimum, goEmerchant has the lowest in our review at $15 per month, and Gotmerchant.com requires the highest at $50 per month; however, most require $25. If you don't generate enough fees to meet the monthly minimum, you're required pay the difference between the generated fees and the minimum.
- Monthly Gateway Fee: A payment gateway is necessary if you intend to accept credit cards. Small business owners with online shops need a gateway because it encrypts and securely transmits credit card data from your website to the processor. Approximately half of the processors we reviewed charge a monthly fee for this service, and the average is $10. An additional fourth of processors we reviewed include the payment gateway as part of their monthly fees. Some processors also charge an additional per-transaction fee.
- Gateway Setup Fee: A few of the processors we reviewed charge a fee to set up the payment gateway connection with your website. This can be an expensive one-time fee that may cost $49 to $99.
- PCI-Compliance Fee: If you work with a standard processor that provides you with your own merchant account, you're required to be PCI compliant, which means that you adhere to the Data Security Standards the Payment Card Industry developed to help merchants prevent data theft and fraud.
- Several processors charge a fee to help you achieve compliance. Most processors that charge this fee offer to help you complete the annual questionnaire that you're required to complete to demonstrate your compliance. Your rep may call or email to remind you to take it each year, or the processor may note it on your statement. On average, this fee costs $99.
- PCI Non-Compliance: If you have your own merchant account, you're required to complete the annual PCI questionnaire. Even if the processor doesn't require you to pay an annual PCI-compliance fee, it may charge you a monthly non-compliance fee if you fail to establish compliance by filling out the questionnaire. You can easily avoid this fee by staying up to date with your PCI responsibilities.
- Chargeback Fee: If a customer disputes a charge and requests his or her money back, the processor charges you this fee. It's most commonly seen in online sales because of the typical reasons for chargebacks, which include delivery failures, technical errors, fraud and customer dissatisfaction. Another common cause of chargebacks is if your store name is different from the name on your merchant account and your customer doesn't recognize your merchant name on his or her credit card statement.
Tips for Lowering Your Online Processing Costs
There are several steps you can take to lower your online processing costs or to ensure that you receive the best possible rates.
- Review Your Statement Every Month: This is a good habit to get into so you can identify any changes on your account, such as any new fees or rate increases. This is important to watch for as most contracts don't include pricing guarantees.
You also want to watch for any notices about your account, such as PCI-compliance reminders that help you stay on top of your PCI compliance so you can avoid expensive non-compliance fees. If there are new charges or rate increases, you can call your rep to discuss your account.
- Ask Your Rep to Review Your Pricing: If you've been processing for a while, you may qualify for a pricing review and be eligible for lower rates, especially if your processing volume has increased since you signed up. If your processor offers additional pricing models, it may be worth asking your processor if another pricing model would be more cost effective for your business.
Before switching, ask your rep if any new fees or requirements come with the new pricing plan. Industry experts recommend interchange-plus pricing as the most affordable, transparent pricing model.
- Shop Around & Renegotiate Your Rates: There are few things more frustrating than finding out you've been overpaying; for this reason, it's important to shop around every year or two to make sure that the rates you're paying are still competitive. If another processor offers better rates, don't hesitate to call your rep and ask him or her to review your pricing or renegotiate your rates.
If you're on a month-to-month service contract, you're in a better position to negotiate since you can easily switch services. If you're under contract and the rep is unwilling to negotiate, it may be a good time to review your contract and figure out when it expires or renews and what you need to do cancel your account.
Shopping for an Online Payments Processor
You want to give yourself enough time to shop around for a processor that enables you to accept credit card payments online. The reason for this is that even though reading articles about online processors can help you create a short list of companies to consider, it's still important to contact these companies directly so you can get pricing quotes specific to your business. You want to give yourself enough time to request contracts, read them, and negotiate fees and terms.
You also want to evaluate which rep provides you with the best customer support, and keep in mind that most often, the person who you're working with will be your main point of contact once you sign up with the processor.