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Businesses praise credit card fee relief but consumers savings not guaranteed

Credit cards shown on in Halifax on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. Small business owners are praising a measure in Tuesday's federal budget to lower credit card interchange fees, but some industry representatives argue the move will do little to save money for consumers.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Small business owners are praising a measure in the federal budget to lower credit card interchange fees, but some industry representatives argued the move will do little to save costs for consumers.

Ottawa announced it has reached deals with Visa and Mastercard to lower such fees by up to 27 per cent from their current average rates for more than 90 per cent of credit card-accepting businesses.

The government estimated this would save businesses $1 billion over five years.

Canadian Federation of Independent Business president Dan Kelly called it the "biggest win" of the federal budget.

"Credit-card usage has just ballooned over the last number of years and therefore the business is just on the hook for a much larger chunk of sales," said Kelly.

"With margins being constrained for small businesses, costs going up on almost every line of their budget, some relief on this one would be hugely beneficial."

Rich Gowman, owner and operator of Amplifiers Plus in Kitchener, Ont. which repairs guitar and bass amplifiers, said he has been adding a surcharge for credit card transactions since the start of the year to cover the interchange fee costs to his business.

He said his company was dinged an extra three to five per cent per credit card transaction depending on the card used.

"It wasn't really hurting me that much, however it was still a fee that I had to absorb and I had to write off as a business expense," he said.

"If those fees are reduced, then I'll be able to reduce the surcharge that I'm charging on the credit card."

But Kelly said details are still lacking about which small businesses will qualify and when. He said it's also unclear how much each business might save.

"We're optimistic that this will be a good deal, but there's a lot of ground left to cover and so we're hoping for some follow-up announcements," he said.

"We don't have a full line of sight on exactly the nature of the rate reductions. Small firms are really holding their breath, hoping for some progress ... quickly in order to help them deal with their rising costs."

Those concerns were echoed by Gary Sands, senior vice-president of public policy with the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, who said small business "should hold their applause when the government says that there will be interchange reductions of 'up to 27 per cent.'"

Sands said his discussions with the government indicated that Ottawa was considering a sales volume approach to determining who would qualify for a reduction.

"In a high sales volume but low margin sector like retail grocery, using volumes as the benchmark would punish our small business independent retailers just because they are in the grocery sector," he said in a statement.

"There is not an independent grocer in Canada who will see any kind of reduction if that approach is used."

Ottawa said more details, including eligible businesses, will be released in the coming weeks. The government said it expects lower interchange fees for small businesses would not mean other businesses have to pay higher fees.

Mastercard would also not say which businesses are expected to qualify. In a statement, the credit card company said it was committed to "helping to lower costs for Canadian small and medium businesses by reducing interchange rates."

Visa did not respond to a request for comment on the agreement.

Meanwhile, the Retail Council of Canada downplayed the move, saying households pay an average of $600 a year in credit card interchange costs and the announcement might only reduce that by $12 annually.

It estimated the move would reduce credit card costs to consumers by two per cent at most.

"The government missed a big opportunity to save Canadian families money in challenging times," said spokeswoman Michelle Wasylyshen in a press release.

She called those potential savings "flimsy by any standard."

"Canadian families could really have used that help with affordability," said Wasylyshen.

The announcement was welcomed by Canada's restaurant industry. 

In a statement, Restaurants Canada, an association representing 30,000 members, said the agreement was "a big win for our sector, as it leaves more dollars in the hands of business owners" and looked forward to more details being shared.

The group also praised the budget's lowering of the planned federal alcohol excise duty increase. The tax will increase to two per cent on April 1, rather than the initially planned 6.3 per cent hike.

The Canadian Craft Brewers Association said that reduction "comes at a crucial time."

"With the cost of everything that goes into producing Canadian craft beer experiencing significant increases, this will provide some relief to many small businesses across the country," said chair Blair Berdusco.

— With files from Brett Bundale in Halifax 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2023.

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press

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