Grocers eye credit card business

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THE FIVE biggest supermarket companies are pressing Sir Bryan Carsberg, Director General of Fair Trading, to be allowed to process plastic card transactions - an activity which is the exclusive preserve of the clearing banks.

J Sainsbury, Tesco, Argyll Group, Asda and Isosceles-owned Gateway have asked the Office of Fair Trading to break up the cartels operated by Visa, Mastercard and Switch.

If they are not satisfied, they may decide to boycott plastic, or to surcharge customers who pay with cards. Sir Bryan is expected to come to a ruling within the next few weeks.

The supermarkets believe they already have much of the expertise and most of the technology necessary to process credit card and debit card transactions themselves.

At present only the banks which issue the cards are allowed to process the transactions - a multi- billion pound activity known as 'merchant-acquiring'.

Colin Smith, finance director of Argyll, which owns the Safeway chain, said: 'If we were allowed to do so, we would look at the possibility of becoming a merchant- acquirer. We feel we would be able to develop the technology. It wouldn't be a problem.' Argyll uses National Westminster to process Switch debit card transactions and Barclays for credit cards.

Marks and Spencer, which is not a member of the lobby group, would be a major beneficiary of any liberalisation because of its large in-house credit card arm. It has already come to blows with Switch and is threatening to abort its three-store trial of the system.

Earlier this year the banks unilaterally raised their 'merchant- acquiring' fees, provoking fury from the supermarkets, which lodged a formal complaint with the OFT. The request to merchant-acquire is included in the submission, lodged in May.

The grocers' main complaint is over the interchange fee - a charge paid by the card-processing bank to the card-issuing bank. This is included in the gross charge paid by the supermarkets, but they have no control over it.

Mr Smith is also chairman of the negotiating committee set up by the five grocers to fight the banks, which met the OFT last month. He said: 'Sir Bryan agreed that the complaint we made to the OFT raised some substantive competition issues. He indicated that he expected to form a decision in the near future.'

Sir Bryan could either reject the grocers' complaint, or negotiate undertakings from the banks, or refer the complaint to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. In 1989 the MMC examined the industry and found the banks made excessive profits from credit cards.

The banks say they have had to raise fees just to break even. Stores pay fees of between 1 and 5 per cent of the value of the transaction.

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