How To Identify The Pricing Model On Your Processing Statement
“It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”
This was a popular PSA broadcasted to parents in the ’70s and ’80s, back when “stranger danger” was just about the scariest thing out there. Now, I have an equally important PSA for small business owners: “You have your processing statement. Do you know your pricing model?”
The ability to recognize merchant account pricing models (and, most importantly, which one you have) is a crucial step toward understanding your statement, as well as increasing your overall merchant-savvy. We’ve found that many merchants recognize the rates and fees they were quoted for processing, but without any broader context of which pricing model they have. This makes deciphering an already-confusing card processing statement all the more difficult, and makes discerning whether you’re paying too much nearly impossible.
Starting with a statement and working backward to an accurate understanding of how your quoted rates actually kick in is maybe not the ideal introduction to pricing models. Yet, this is most often the way things go, and I’m not surprised. No one goes to “merchant account school” for this stuff, and account providers vary widely in both their skill and willingness to thoroughly explain pricing.
The good news is that small business owners are no strangers to learning on the fly. So, grab a statement or two, and let’s get cracking!
Table of Contents
A Quick Primer On Pricing
In broad strokes, the main pricing models are differentiated by the way your merchant account provider handles the wholesale cost of processing (what it must pay to other entities in the processing chain) versus its own markup. There are two separate types of wholesale costs — interchange fees and card association fees — but the differences between pricing models mostly center around how interchange fees are handled.
You’re probably already aware of the vast variety of credit and debit cards in circulation. Each type of card has its own pre-set interchange cost (a percentage of the sale and sometimes a per-transaction fee) that all merchant account providers must pay to the card-issuing bank when that particular card type is used. Over the years, the main merchant account pricing models have developed based on two possible ways of dealing with these wholesale interchange costs:
- Pass the interchange costs directly to the merchant and also charge a separate “low” markup.
- Blend the interchange costs into one or more “high” overall rates for the merchant that already include a markup.
I’m putting “low” and “high” in quotation marks because we recognize they’re super-relative terms. Not to mention, the exact amount of your rate is only one piece of the puzzle. As a helpful simplification going forward, you can think of “low” as well under 1%, and high as over 1% (often at least 2%, or even much more). The important thing to remember is that a low rate may not include interchange already (look for those costs listed separately), while a high rate likely does.
The “Big Four” Models
The most common pricing models are interchange-plus, membership, flat-rate, and tiered. For more background on the models, check out these helpful articles:
- Trading Ease For Transparency With Interchange-Plus
- Tiered Pricing: The Epic Fail Of A Pricing Model
- Get A 0% Interchange-Plus Markup With Membership Fee Pricing
- Analyzing The Cost-Effectiveness of Square’s Mobile Processing Solution (flat-rate pricing)
If you’re still a bit foggy on the differences, that’s okay. For now, you can start with your statement and work toward a better understanding of merchant account pricing as a whole. We’ll get there!
Good Indicators, But Not Guarantees
While each pricing model leaves tell-tale signs on a statement, it’s important to note that no “standard” indicator is necessarily a guarantee. Think of the indicators we’ll discuss as good clues, or important signs. In truth, processors may include red herrings in their statements, or invent their own strange hybrid systems. Fortunately, most stick fairly closely to the main pricing models.
Now, we’re finally ready to look at the four main pricing models and their most common statement indicators. The more indicators for a certain model on your statement, the better the odds that’s the model you have. I’ll be using a few snippets of statements as examples, but note that any interchange rates listed are not necessarily the current values. Some of the statements are older. In any case, your statement will never match these completely. No two processors display this stuff in the same way.
Interchange-Plus / Cost-Plus Pricing
All things being equal, interchange-plus statements are the most difficult to read. The big payoff is that you clearly see the difference between wholesale costs and your account provider’s markup on your statements. In this model, the rate you were quoted was just the markup piece — the “plus” in “interchange-plus.” In other words, interchange fees and your account provider’s markup are charged separately. Typically, interchange-plus plans charge both a percentage markup and a flat, per-transaction markup. Here’s what you’ll likely see on your statement:
- Itemized Interchange Rates:
- Consistent “Low” Percentage Markup: Charged separately from interchange fees.
- Consistent Transaction Fee Markup: This per-transaction markup may be found in the same line items as the percentage markups, or down in a separate “authorization” section.
Subscription / Membership Pricing
Membership pricing is sort of a riff on interchange-plus. The wholesale interchange rates are still charged separately from the account provider’s markup. The difference is that the markup comes in the form of one flat monthly subscription fee, and also a small, per-transaction markup. No percentage markup is charged. Here are the main statement indicators of subscription pricing:
- Itemized Interchange Rates: Similar to Example A above.
- Consistent Transaction Fee Markup: See Example E below.
- No Percentage Markup: See Example E below. Note that percentages will still be part of itemized interchange rates (not shown below), but no separate percentage markup is present.
Flat-Rate / Blended Pricing
This is the model most commonly offered by third-party payment facilitators (a.k.a. PSPs, merchant aggregators) like PayPal, Stripe, and Square. Occasionally, traditional merchant account providers use it as well. In this all-inclusive model, wholesale charges and the processor’s markup are all blended together into your one, flat processing rate. If a per-transaction fee is part of your rate, this also goes toward covering your provider’s wholesale costs plus any profit margin. Your flat rate covers all types of transactions, from inexpensive signature debit transactions, all the way to expensive business rewards cards. You’ll typically observe:
- No Itemized Interchange Rates: Your statement is quite simple, but you can’t see the actual wholesale cost behind any of your transactions.
- Consistent “High” Rate: If any rate is displayed at all, it’s usually just one main rate in the high 2% to mid-3% range, and sometimes you’ll see a per-transaction fee as well. Note that some PSPs charge a couple different high rates based on the type of transactions you run (i.e., keyed or ecommmerce vs. swiped/dipped.)
Tiered / Bundled Pricing
This is another case where you can’t see the itemized interchange rates separate from your processor’s markup on your statement. Instead, your transactions are first grouped into tiers according to the processor’s pre-set criteria. Each group (tier) is then charged a flat rate that already includes the interchange costs for those transactions. If you’ve got a tiered plan but have only been quoted one rate, it’s typically the rate for transactions that fall under the lowest, “qualified” tier. In reality, some transactions may be downgraded to higher priced tiers (mid-qualified and non-qualified). You have no real way of predicting these downgrades ahead of time. Here’s what you’d see:
- No Itemized Interchange Rates: You generally won’t see a list of interchange charges–because why list them if they’re already blended into your tiered rates?
- Qualified, Mid-Qualified, Non-Qualified Labels: Any line items with any of these labels (or similar-looking abbreviations) is your biggest clue.
- Multiple Rates, Usually “High”: By definition, a tiered program must have at least two rate levels or tiers shown on the statement. The standard model is three levels: qualified (lowest), mid-qualified (middle), and non-qualified (highest). Note that some providers may create a separate set of three tiers for debit transactions, because these wholesale debit costs are cheaper. The bottom levels of a signature debit tier can actually be “low” (well under 1%) and still account for the interchange cost or act as a loss leader. You’ll need to be sure that there are no other higher rates charged on your statement (and examine other indicators) before you can assume your “low” rate means you’re on interchange-plus! On the other hand, all credit card tiers will likely be well over 1% and in the “high” category, so look for those as a better indicator. When you’re looking for multiple rates on your statement, the mid and non-qualified transactions may be listed right next to the qualified ones, or may be shown as separate surcharges later in the statement (like in Example H below).
Did you recognize your own pricing model among these main four types? If you made it this far with your statement, I hope you’ve at least developed a strong hunch. While each model has its merits for different situations, you can probably tell we prefer the inherent transparency and comparability of models that separate out the interchange costs from the account provider’s markup. By the same token, we have a hard time getting behind the unpredictable downgrading and surcharging of tiered pricing. I’d encourage you to check out our top merchant account providers if you’re looking for a fresh start. All of them offer transparent interchange-plus or subscription pricing plans.
Parents of the 70s and 80s feared “stranger danger” above all else, but my biggest fear for merchants is that they pay too much or even get scammed because they don’t have a solid understanding of their processing statements. Knowing and recognizing your pricing model is one of your best protections as a merchant. If you’re still unsure about yours, drop us a line and we’ll see if we can help!