Retailers and payment schemes (Visa, Mastercard...) jousting on the interchange rates and impact it has on the economy has been interesting. Rates paid by retailers vary tremendously (based on many different factors which I shall not get into here). To drive a stake in the ground, the rates are around 1.8% in the US for credit cards. In a world where margins are thin, 1.8% seem like a king's ransom.
With this perspective, let us look at rates paid by online retailers to process online payments. Using PayPal as a benchmark, PayPal charged merchants an aggregate fee of 3.54% in Q4'09, nearly twice as much what merchants pay in the physical world. Additionally, PayPal's transaction processing expense rate and losses added up to only 1.36% [in Q4'09], resulting in a margin of a whopping 62%.
Fortunately for PayPal, their competition charge as much, but do not have the great business model of being able to keep most of the money. In a traditional (Brick-n-Mortar) model, the fees paid by merchants are split between at least four parties, the acquirer, the processor, the issuer and the network/scheme, with most of the fees heading to the issuer (around 80%). In the online world, there is yet another mouth to feed, the payment gateway (e.g., Authroize.net). Thanks to the disruptive innovation of PayPal, they successfully created a model where there is only party at the table, PayPal. In an increasing number of transactions, PayPal is the Payment Gateway, Acquirer, Network and the Issuer (and in these cases it costs them a few pennies to process a payment transaction). Through this innovation, they get to charge what the competition charges (high rates), while being able to keep most of it.
Isn't it wonderful to participate in a sub-optimal world of online payments. PayPal's large margins are funding their red-hot growth that is many times larger than the industry average. With each passing year, PayPal will continue to grow (both top line and bottom line) at the cost of the other players, with competition only being able to watch PayPal demolish them. The existing business model of Visa/MasterCard has tied the hands of the traditional players and forcing them to play in a playing field that is lopsided and favoring PayPal.
And, if you think that above situation is an unfair advantage for PayPal, wait for them to play their next card, Mobile Payments. The above structural disadvantages are holding back the traditional players in mobile payments, as nobody wants to add yet another player who demands a cut (the telecom operator). Guess what, the efficiencies and the margins that PayPal has can easily accommodate the player whom the competition is pushing out.
How do you think Visa and MasterCard, the public companies will respond to protect their turf and deliver shareholder value?