Swipe Card Reform: Are Consumers Saving Money?

(Image credit: AP Photo)

As the one-year anniversary of credit and debit card swipe fee reform approaches, a debate about whether shoppers are saving at the register as a result rages on.

The National Retail Federation estimates that U.S. retailers and customers save $18 million a day thanks to reform that reduced the swipe or interchange fee -typically a 1.5 percent to 3 percent charge - paid to banks for credit card transactions.

The Durbin amendment, which lowered the so-called "interchange fees," went into effect on Oct. 1, 2011 in response to financial reform on Wall Street.

The alleged savings though can be a bit squishy to identify.

"Merchants haven't necessarily labeled the savings from reform as a 'debit discount' but they have nonetheless found a variety of ways to pass the value along to their customers," NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement. "Depending on the store, shoppers are paying lower prices, getting better service or avoiding prices hikes that otherwise would have come with inflation."

"Retailers are simply too competitive not to share savings with consumers because customer value is one of the key ways they take market share away from their competitors," Shay said.

According to Bankrate, swipe fees revenue doubled from $30 billion to $60 billion from 2005 to 2011, while checking fees rose from $11 to $14 on average during the same period. After labor, according to the Wall Street Journal, interchange fees are the largest expense for retailers.

But, the Electronic Payments Coalition, a payment industry group for banks, says consumers are being hit in other ways.

"Giant retailers lobbied Congress so they could pay less to accept a debit card, with a wink and a nod that they would lower prices for their customers. One year later, ask yourself - do you feel that you've seen lower prices? Have you seen a discount for using your debit card - which would have been the easiest and most direct way to fulfill their promise to Congress," Trish Wexler, a spokesperson for EPC wrote ABC News in a statement.

According to a report by financial research firm Javelin Strategy & Research, credit card swipe reform cost banks $6.6 billion a year in lost revenue.

" More likely, you've seen your free checking disappear and increased fees as card issuers had to make up for $8 billion in lost revenue that supported these debit card programs. Let's just call a spade a spade - this was a political handout to big-box retailers, who are now scrambling to make excuses for why they couldn't pass these savings along to customers," Wexler continued.

Since the fourth quarter of 2009 through June of 2011, the number of big banks offering free checking accounts declined by 54 percent, according to research firm Moebs Services.

Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the advocacy group U.S. PIRG, says small banks and credit unions continue to offer free checking accounts and there's no proof consumers are not saving money.

"Small banks are benefiting from swipe reform. The industry has no proof that merchants aren't passing savings along but the bank industry is trying to gain support for a horrible settlement that will allow them to perpetuate their horrible practice and continue to raise swipe fees," Mierzwinski told ABC News.

Mierzwinski said many unfair practices by the banks have been changed by good regulation, including swipe fee reform on debit cards, recent CFB-imposed penalties on credit card deceptive marketing and the 2009 Credit Card act that curtailed credit card companies late fees and restricts exorbitant interest rate increases.

"The banks and VISA and Mastercard credit card networks are using a cartel to gouge merchants with unfair swipe fees that were non-negotiable and the result is cash customers at the store are paying higher prices because swipe fees were going towards creating rewards for more affluent credit card customers," says Mierzwinski.