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Consumers' Real-World Cost of Cash: A Defining Moment for ATM Deployers and Merchants

Wednesday, June 13, 2018


Consumers run into plenty of tacked-on charges in today’s world — hello airline baggage fees! — but the ATM fee, small as it is, is up near the top in terms of generating aggravation. There’s just something patently absurd and beyond annoying about paying money to get your money.

— Time 


Editor's note: There's no question that "tacked-on" fees annoy consumers. As suggested in a commentary last week, educating ATM users about surcharge fees is the ATM deployer's best solution for protecting the industry's public image.

Or is it? Today's commentary suggests a very different remedy for managing consumers' fee frustration.


by Clinton Townsend and Eric Fondren
Co-founders of FreeATM


Consumers believe that they have worked hard for their money and, with the abundance of independent ATM locations, the only differentiation they notice is price, not convenient access. In order to truly understand why consumers hate ATM fees so much, we must first know our customers and listen to the feedback we receive concerning the losing value propositions they may encounter while transacting in the local marketplace.


The Landscape of Local Commerce


The Federal Reserve reports that one-third of consumer transactions are less than $10, two-thirds of which are paid for in cash. However, in an urban market like New York you’ll likely run into the inevitable sign at the cash register of your local deli or bar saying “cash only” or “Minimum for Debit/Credit Cards: $10.” This leaves consumers searching for cash, and the convenience of many merchants to have an ATM is not always in the consumer's favor.



Let’s use a transaction at a local juice bar in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, as a real-world example. As a first-time customer, I ordered a $6 smoothie. When attempting to pay for the item, I was abruptly told: “Cash only! But, there’s an ATM for your convenience in the store.”


The surcharge-fee was $2. The problem here is that as a consumer, I’m now paying 33 percent more for the cost of my desired product. Had the merchant accepted debit/credit cards for a $6 purchase, they would have paid typically between 2.75 percent and 4.25 percent.


However, in this type of environment, the consumer is footing the transactional cost and actually paying 7.7 times to 12 times the rate the merchant would have paid in interchange.

It’s concerning that those merchants oftentimes don’t recognize this impact to the consumer and to the quality of service they are providing when combining a cash-only policy with a high surcharge fee.