What Is A Merchant Services Provider?
If you’ve just started your own business or you’re looking to add credit and debit cards as payment methods, you’re going to be bombarded by a bewildering variety of new terms and concepts that you’ve never encountered before. One very basic term you’ll want to familiarize yourself with is the type of business entity known as a merchant services provider.
To understand what a merchant services provider is and what it can do for your business, you’ll first need to understand the concept of merchant services. This term describes the range of services and hardware and software products that allow merchants to accept and process credit or debit card transactions. Before the internet came along, things were pretty simple. Merchant services consisted of countertop terminals to input card payments, processing services to approve the transaction, and merchant accounts to deposit the money in after the sale. Today, it’s a much more complicated landscape, with eCommerce opening up far more opportunities for selling products remotely than just mail and telephone ordering. Software products such as payment gateways allow customers to pay for purchases directly over the internet, while inventory management and online reporting services give you the power to track virtually every aspect of your business on your computer.
Merchant services providers are sometimes also referred to as acquirers, processors, or merchant account providers. Here at Merchant Maverick, we use the term merchant services providers as a catch-all to cover entities such as merchant account providers, payment services providers (PSPs), payment gateway providers, and any other type of business that allows you to accept payment methods other than cash or paper checks.
Types of Merchant Services Providers
Not all merchant services providers offer the same features, but most fall into one of several categories that help to differentiate them a little from their competitors. The most common types of merchant services providers include the following:
Merchant Account Providers
These entities are the most commonly encountered merchant services providers. A merchant account provider can, at a minimum, provide you with a merchant account and credit card processing services to ensure that you receive your money when a customer pays by credit or debit card. While all merchant account providers can set you up with a merchant account, only a few of the largest companies can also offer processing services to process your transactions through the credit card networks (Visa, Mastercard, American Express, etc.). These companies are called direct processors, and include industry leaders such as First Data (see our review), Elavon (see our review), and TSYS Merchant Solutions (see our review). Most other merchant account providers rely on one of these direct processors to process their merchants’ transactions.
Payment Services Providers (PSPs)
While having a merchant account is a good idea for all but the smallest of businesses, you don’t absolutely need one to accept credit or debit card payments. A payment services provider (PSP), such as Square (see our review) or PayPal (see our review) can give your business the ability to accept credit card payments without a dedicated merchant account. Instead, your account will be aggregated with those of other merchants, and you won’t have a unique merchant ID number. This arrangement has the advantage of virtually eliminating the account fees and lengthy contract terms that often come with a traditional merchant account. However, these accounts are more prone to being frozen or terminated without notice, and customer service options aren’t as robust as they are with a full-service merchant account. PSPs are an excellent choice for businesses that only process a few thousand dollars a month in credit/debit card transactions or only operate on a seasonal basis.
Payment Gateway Providers
With the advent of eCommerce, a new kind of provider has come on the scene: the payment gateway provider. These companies can offer you a payment gateway, which you’ll need to accept online payments. However, they may or may not also offer you a merchant account to go with it. Authorize.Net (see our review), one of the largest and oldest gateway providers, gives you a choice between one of their merchant accounts or using their gateway with your existing merchant account. Other providers, such as PayTrace (see our review), offer a gateway-only service. You’ll have to get your own merchant account from a third-party provider.
Types of Merchant Services
Most merchant services providers offer a wide variety of products and services to allow merchants to accept credit card and debit card payments, as well as manage their inventory and track other aspects of their business. Your needs as a merchant will depend on the nature and type of your business. While all businesses will need either a merchant account or a payment service account (if you’re signed up with a PSP), other features will only be useful for certain types of businesses. For example, if your business doesn’t sell anything online, you won’t need a payment gateway. Here’s a brief overview of the most common types of merchant services:
Every business that wants to accept credit cards or debit cards as a form of payment will need a merchant account. While most merchant account providers offer full-service merchant accounts, those from PSPs like Square (see our review) lack a unique merchant ID number. Merchant ID numbers make your business easier to properly identify to payment processing systems, giving you some protection from fraud and adding stability to your account. A merchant account is simply an account where funds from processed transactions are deposited. Those funds are then transferred by your provider into a business account that you specify, such as a business checking account.
Credit Card Terminals
Retail merchants will also need a hardware product that can read your customers’ credit and debit cards and then transmit that information to your provider’s processing network. Traditional countertop terminals such as the Verifone Vx520 can connect to processing networks via either an Ethernet connection or a landline. Wireless models are also available, but they tend to be bulkier and more expensive than wired models, and require a wireless data plan (usually around $20.00 per month) to operate.
Terminals may be purchased outright or leased from your merchant services provider. Because most providers support the same terminals, we recommend either buying your terminal directly from your provider or purchasing it from a third-party supplier. Terminals require a software load which must be installed before they can accept transactions. If you buy your terminal from a third-party source, you’ll need to have it re-programmed to install this software. We strongly discourage terminal leasing due to the noncancelable nature of the leases and the fact that you’ll pay several times more than the value of the terminal over the lifetime of the lease.
In shopping for a terminal, you should select an EMV-compliant model as a minimum. Support for NFC-based payment methods (such as Apple Pay and Google Pay) is also a good choice as these methods are becoming more popular among customers.
Point of Sale (POS) Systems
POS systems combine the functions of a credit card terminal with a large computer display, enabling you to manage inventory and monitor your sales through a single piece of equipment. These systems include fully-featured, dedicated terminals and tablet-based software options that can run on an iPad or Android tablet. Many providers offer optional accessories such as tablet mounts, cash drawers, and check scanners, allowing you to accept any form of payment through a single device.
Mobile Payment (mPOS) Systems
These systems allow you to use your smartphone or tablet as a credit card terminal. mPOS systems consist of a mobile card reader that connects to your mobile device and an app to communicate with your provider’s processing network. While Square (see our review) was the first provider to offer a simple mPOS system, most providers now offer similar products. Although they’re difficult to find and cost more than simple magstripe-only readers, we recommend selecting a card reader with EMV compatibility and a Bluetooth connection (rather than the traditional headphone jack plug) to future-proof your system.
A payment gateway is simply software that communicates between your website and your provider’s processing networks, allowing you to accept payments over the internet. Because not all merchants need a gateway, providers usually charge a monthly gateway fee (around $25.00) to access this feature. Most gateways include support for recurring billing, a customer information management database, and security features such as encryption or tokenization to protect your customers’ data.
A virtual terminal is another software product that turns your computer into a credit card terminal. Transactions can be entered manually or swiped using an optional USB-connected card reader. Virtual terminals are most commonly used by mail order/telephone order businesses that don’t have an eCommerce website.
Online Shopping Carts
Shopping cart software is designed for eCommerce merchants who need a more specialized shopping experience or want to customize the features of their website. Shopify (see our review) is one of the most popular online shopping carts. Check compatibility with your merchant services provider before selecting an online cart.
eCheck (ACH) Processing
eCheck processing is an optional feature offered by most merchant service providers. It allows you to scan paper checks and instantly confirm that funds are available to cover the purchase. This service protects you from fraud and saves you a trip to the bank.
Merchant Cash Advances and Small Business Loans
Merchant cash advances and small business loans provide another way for your business to receive funds when you need them, and most merchant services providers offer them. Check out our Merchant’s Guide to Short-Term Loans for more information.
Which specific merchant services you need will depend on the nature of your business. Retail-only businesses won’t need a payment gateway, but they will need reliable credit card terminals. eCommerce businesses can’t function without a payment gateway, but do not require terminals. Of course, if your business operates in both the retail and eCommerce sector (which is becoming more common), you’ll need just about every service your provider has to offer.
Every merchant service provider has their own unique combination of products and services, so you’ll want to ensure that a provider offers the features that you need before you sign up. Many of these services are proprietary, meaning they’ll only work with the provider that offers them. While this helps to ensure compatibility between different products, it also means you won’t be able to take your favorite product with you if you switch providers. This is more of a factor in the eCommerce sector, where payment gateways are often proprietary products. For an overview of our highest-rated merchant services providers, check out our Merchant Account Comparison Chart.