What Is Payment Processing?

What Is Payment Processing?

Running your own business always works much better when your customers actually pay you for the products and services you provide for them. Paying for purchases has become a lot more complicated in the modern world than it used to be. It wasn’t all that long ago that cash and paper checks were the preferred payment methods, but now consumers increasingly prefer credit or debit cards. Online payments, while commonplace today, have only been available for a little over twenty years. The recent introduction of NFC-based payments, which allow a consumer to make a payment with their smartphone (or smartwatch), adds yet another way for your customers to complete a purchase.

Each of these payment methods requires specific hardware (and, in some cases, software) that you’ll need if you want to support them. The days of just having a cash drawer in your shop are long gone. In this article, we’ll review the various payment methods you’ll want to be able to accept, as well as explain how those payment methods are processed so you can receive your money.

Payment Methods

Customers have a lot more options for paying for purchases today than they did just a few years ago. While cash is still the simplest payment method, it’s fallen out of favor as the use of credit and debit cards has risen. Merchants, of course, prefer to be paid in cash because they don’t need a merchant account to process these transactions, and they receive 100% of the sale price immediately. Paper checks are almost as good, although they require a trip to the bank and there is a significant risk of fraud or having the check “bounce” due to insufficient funds. While some customers prefer to pay in cash or by paper check, they’re a dwindling minority. Most customers today will want to use a credit or debit card, which requires a merchant account and a processor to ensure you receive your payment.

Credit Card Processing

While credit cards have been around for over 100 years, their use has skyrocketed within the past few decades. Although this has also led to a nationwide crisis in consumer credit card debt, it’s also created headaches for merchants who have to set up a merchant account and pay for processing costs. Nonetheless, credit card use has become so prevalent that for most merchants, the additional sales more than make up for the cost of maintaining a merchant account.

While most credit cards are issued by banks, they’re also sponsored by a small number of credit card associations, such as Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express. These entities charge a variety of fees whenever a purchase is made with one of their cards. These fees are collectively known as interchange. When a transaction is processed, the processor will charge you both the interchange and a markup in exchange for its processing service. Unfortunately, interchange rates vary widely based on the type of card used and other factors, and this has made it easier for processors to rake in higher profits by offering merchants “simplified” processing rate plans such as flat-rate or tiered pricing. For this reason, we recommend interchange-plus pricing for most established businesses. This pricing method adds a fixed markup to each transaction, regardless of types. Example: interchange + 0.30% + $0.15 per transaction. While the interchange variable will vary widely with each transaction, the markup that you pay to your processor will always be the same.

In addition to paying processing rates for each transaction, maintaining a merchant account also usually requires the payment of a variety of account fees. These fees are different for every processor, and sometimes even among merchants using the same processor. For a more in-depth discussion of merchant account fees, please see our Complete Guide to Credit Card Processing Rates and Fees.

The advent of interconnected banking and credit card processing networks has drastically sped up the process of purchasing with a credit card. While the transaction approval process is rather complicated, it can be completed within just a few seconds in most cases. Here’s a very simplified explanation: The consumer’s credit card data is submitted to the processing network, which contacts the issuing bank to ensure that sufficient credit is available on the consumer’s account to cover the cost of the purchase. Several anti-fraud checks are also completed, and if no red flags are raised, the transaction is approved. The processor then processes the transaction, paying the interchange to the issuing bank and credit card associations, and keeping the remainder of the processing charge. Only then are funds released to the business owner’s merchant account. Unfortunately, this part of the process takes much longer, as most merchants submit their transactions in a batch at the end of the day. It can take up to several days before funds are deposited into your account.

Debit Card Processing

Paying with a debit card is also increasingly popular with consumers, particularly for small, day-to-day purchases such as groceries and automobile fuel. These transactions are also much easier to process, as the issuing bank doesn’t have to decide as to whether to issue a credit to the consumer to cover the cost of the purchase. As long as there are sufficient funds in the consumer’s bank account, the transaction will usually be approved.

Because there is no need to issue a credit, the overall risk associated with debit card use is significantly lower than it is with credit cards. For this reason, the interchange rates for debit card use are substantially lower as well. One of the reasons we encourage you to avoid tiered pricing plans is that many of the processors that offer these plans charge the same rates for debit card use as they do for credit cards. This can result in you paying significantly more for debit card processing than you should. This issue is also a shortcoming with flat-rate pricing plans offered by providers like Square (see our review). However, the lack of account fees usually associated with these types of processors often outweighs this consideration, especially for small or seasonal businesses.

eCheck (ACH) Payment Processing

Although it’s becoming less common, some consumers still prefer to pay by check whenever possible. Merchants can accept paper checks without the need for an eCheck processing service, and you’ll receive 100% of the sale price. However, you’ll have to make a trip to the bank to cash the check, and it might be rejected due to insufficient funds. There’s also the possibility of losing a paper check.

eCheck processing services eliminate all these problems, but they’re not free. Because not all merchants need them, most providers offer eCheck processing as an optional service, and charge a monthly fee for it (usually $20.00 – $30.00). You’ll also have to pay a small transaction fee for each processed check, but it’s much less than most credit or debit card transactions.

Most eCheck processing services require the use of a check scanner, which scans an electronic copy of the check and submits it to the customer’s bank to confirm the availability of funds. As long as the check won’t bounce, the transaction is approved immediately. Because of the monthly fees associated with most eCheck processing services, we recommend them only to businesses that accept a high volume of paper checks from their customers.

Digital Wallet Acceptance

We’re using the term “digital wallet” here to include payment methods that rely on near-field communication (NFC) technology. NFC-based payment methods utilize small, very short-range radios in both the consumer’s payment device (typically a smartphone or smartwatch) and the merchant’s credit card terminal. Apple Pay and Google Pay are currently the most popular forms of NFC-based payments. This technology has only been on the market for a few years and acceptance has been slow. The use of this payment method is growing, however, and merchants should consider adding it to meet the increasing demand. NFC payment methods are, of course, ultimately tied to the user’s credit or debit card, and these transactions are processed as a regular card transaction without any additional fees or markup. While they’re generally not available to independent merchants, other forms of digital wallet payment, such as Walmart’s proprietary Walmart Pay, use the smartphone’s camera and a QR code scanner to accept payments.

Payment Processing Methods

Credit and debit card transactions will be processed either through a traditional, full-service merchant account or a third-party payment processor like Square (see our review). While eCheck payments also go through your merchant account, they are processed under an Automated Clearing House (ACH) system that’s separate from the one used to process credit/debit cards.

Merchant Account and Payment Gateway

Merchant accounts can be used to accept both card-present and card-not-present transactions. Processing rates for card-not-present transactions are usually higher due to the higher level of risk associated with not having the cardholder’s magstripe or EMV data available. While card-present transactions require a magstripe or EMV terminal, card-not-present transactions can be keyed in manually or processed online using a payment gateway. While eCommerce-only merchants require a gateway to accept payments, retailers don’t need them. However, they’re becoming increasingly popular with retail merchants who want to add an online sales channel or take advantage of their integration with cloud-based reporting or inventory management applications.

Third-Party Payment Processor

Third-party payment processors (also known as payment service providers (PSPs)) offer credit/debit card processing services without a full-service merchant account. These types of payment processors are also known as aggregators, as they combine their merchant’s accounts rather than issue each business a unique merchant identification number. This arrangement eliminates most of the account fees associated with traditional merchant accounts, but also results in an increased risk of account freezes or terminations. Third-party processors generally charge using a simplified flat-rate pricing plan with rates that are higher than those available under interchange-plus pricing. The most well-known PSPs include Square (see our review) and PayPal (see our review).

ACH Payment Processor

As we’ve noted above, eCheck payments go through a separate processing method than credit/debit cards. While it’s possible to have an eCheck-only service without the need for a merchant account, this arrangement won’t be practical for most businesses. eCheck processing is usually offered as an optional service (at additional cost) due to the decreasing use of paper checks by consumers.

Final Thoughts

With so many payment methods to choose from, you’ll have to decide which ones are important to your business. While there are still a handful of cash-only businesses out there, today most retail merchants accept credit and debit cards due to the increased sales generated by offering this payment option. Whether you need a full-service merchant account or a third-party payment processor will depend on the size and nature of your business. Merchants operating seasonally or processing only a few thousand dollars per month can usually save money by signing up with a third-party payment processor. Most other businesses will require a full-service merchant account due to the lower processing costs and increased account security. For a brief overview of our highest-rated merchant account providers, check out our Merchant Account Comparison Chart.

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