Calling a Cost a Cost: NY Anti-Free Speech Edition

Seems the State of New York is going to the Supreme Court for another of its protectionist regulatory policies. Yesterday the US Supreme Court granted a petition to hear the case of Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman. As the WSJ explains, at issue is whether New York’s regulations concerning credit-versus-cash retail prices constitute a First Amendment speech violation.

The problem stems from the fact that the State of New York has attempted to have its cake and eat it to by ignoring economic rcredit-card-1520400_1280ealism and prohibiting retailers from calling a cost a cost. The State prohibits retailers from charging customers a fee for using a credit card, but allows retailers to give customers a discount if they use cash. A group of hair salons, led by Expressions Hair Design, sued the state for infringing on its right of free commercial speech. The salons won their initial case, which was reversed on appeal. Now SCOTUS will have an opportunity to weigh in.

The Cost of Using Credit
From an economic perspective, the issue is fairly simple. Credit card companies charge vendors a fee every time a consumer pays with plastic. How much depends on the credit card company, whether the transaction is run as debit or credit, and the amount of the transaction. But typically, the fee is around 2-4% of the amount of the purchase. This reduces the amount of revenue retailers receive when the customer uses plastic. Put another way, when customers choose to use plastic, it raises the retailer’s cost of doing business for that sale.

In a free economy, retailers could choose one of three options: 1) force the credit card user to pay the additional transaction fee, which raises the price at the point of sale, 2) charge the same price for all buyers, implicitly charging cash users more for the product to subsidize the costs of the plastic users, or 3) pass the transaction fee savings on to cash users by giving them a discount. The only economic difference between 1 and 3 is what the sticker price is relative to the price actually paid. In #1, credit card users pay more than the sticker price; in #3, cash users pay less than the sticker price. In #1, the credit card fee is made explicit by adding it on just for those consumers who use plastic. In #3, the sticker price includes (i.e., hides) the cost of using a credit card and by default is the price everyone pays unless they are aware of the cash discount. In either case (1 or 3), the retailer is price discriminating between cash and plastic users. Or the retailer could simply post two sets of prices, one for credit and one for cash, which would then beg the question of “why the difference?” And that is where the NY regulations become a problem.

The NY regulation prohibits retailers from choosing #1 but allows them to choose #3. In other words, the regulation allows retailers to price discriminate, but only if they present it as a discount for cash users rather than a surcharge for credit card users. In short, NY allows the exact same price discrimination between two sets of consumers, but restricts the speech of retailers in how they are allowed to describe that price difference. As Expressions Hair Design argues in their complaint, this places a burden on the business in how it is allowed to explain or justify what is otherwise a perfectly legal two-price pricing system since the regulations make it illegal for employees to explain that the difference between the cash price and the credit price is due to the cost of the credit transaction. It would be like passing a law prohibiting a restaurant from explaining the cost of its steaks went up relative to its pork chops because the price of beef rose.

Framing matters
Why would the State of New York prohibit credit card surcharges but not prohibit cash discounts? Consumers respond to price signals, so how those signals are presented matters. If consumers are charged an extra fee for using their credit card, it makes the cost (price) of using the credit card very obvious to the consumer and she is more likely to change her behavior by using cash instead. This would be bad for the banks that make a significant amount of money on credit card swipe fees. Not surprisingly, banks support laws prohibiting explicit credit card surcharges. However, as noted in #2 above, charging cash and plastic users the same forces cash users to subsidize the purchases of plastic users, which also tends to penalize lower income persons relative to wealthier shoppers. So allowing retailers the opportunity to provide cash discounts is socially superior to not allowing differential pricing. However, the NY’s prohibition on calling a cost a cost and explaining the price difference for what it is, is not only an infringement on speech, but unjustifiable as anything other than an attempt to mislead consumers and protect credit card issuers.

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