Running a small business can be tough. But if you’re not accepting credit cards, you could be putting yourself at an immediate disadvantage.

According to Barclays, 32% of people would consider walking away from a purchase if they could not pay with a credit card, and 43% of customers say they would have a lower opinion of a business that did not accept card payments.

Accepting credit card transactions, whether that’s in-store, over the phone or via a website, can bring a host of benefits, including:

  • Improved sales. An increasing number of customers expect you to take credit card payments. You’re more likely to make a sale if the customer can pay via their preferred method.
  • Customer benefits. Many customers will receive additional benefits from using their credit card. These might include cash back, air miles, reward points, and other perks.
  • Improved security. Holding less cash on your business premises makes security easier to handle. 

Let’s have a look at some of the main
considerations for a small business owner looking to accept card payments.

Credit vs Cash

The U.S. is increasingly becoming less reliant
on cash to do business. By opting to accept card payments, you stand a far
greater chance of running a successful business. Let’s look at the main reasons

Cash is no longer king

Fewer adults carry cash on them, with more and more consumers preferring to use credit cards and digital transactions. According to the U.S. Bank, 50% of people said they carry cash with them less than half of the time they are out. When they do have cash on them, nearly half said it would be less than $20.

The Pew Research Center found that about 1 in 3 Americans made no cash purchases in a typical week, and this trend is even greater among millennials. Subsequent research has shown that more than 1 in 10 millennials use their digital wallet (via apps like Apple Pay and Venmo) for every purchase.

Cash doesn’t come without its problems

You might think that cash is easier to deal
with than credit card payments, but that may not always be the case. Although
cash may not involve any transaction fees, it does require additional resources
to manage. Cash has to be stored and protected and requires you to make regular
trips to the bank to pay it into your account.

Cash can also slow down the payment process, particularly for busy stores. In fact, some stores in the U.S. are choosing not to accept cash at all in order to speed up the transaction process.

Cash can also be more difficult to account for, making balance sheets and end of year tax returns cumbersome. Credit card transactions and digital payment services can usually be incorporated into accounting software, meaning you don’t have to deal with discrepancies and manually inputting data. Employees also don’t have to worry about handling cash, meaning they’re less likely to give incorrect change to a customer.

Understanding Merchant Accounts

In order to accept credit card payments, you’ll
either need a merchant account or an all-in-one solution, such as those offered
by Square and PayPal. Let’s look at the benefits of both:

Merchant accounts

A merchant account is essentially an
intermediary between the credit issuers and your own account. When someone
makes a payment to you using a credit or debit card, the funds are sent to your
merchant account. They are then held here until the payment is confirmed and is
settled into your business bank account.

Opening a merchant account is a little trickier than opting for an all-in-one solution, but the transaction fees are almost always lower in the long term. Your bank is an excellent place to start if you want to set up a merchant account, but you’ll need both a business account and a business license to apply. Some banks may also require additional checks and paperwork—for example, credit history, employment history, and bank statements.

All-in-one solutions

Payment service providers such as PayPal, Square, and Stripe will allow you to use an all-in-one solution, meaning you don’t need to set up your own merchant account. While these are much simpler to set up, they will use a flat rate for all transactions. This often means they are more expensive in the long run.

Once you have your merchant account set up,
there are a few other things you’ll need to consider before you can accept
credit card payments. For most businesses, this will either mean hardware, such
as a card reader, or a payment gateway for accepting online payments. 

Evaluating Different Card Reader Devices

In order to accept credit card payments in
person, you’ll need hardware that can process electronic payments. Typically,
there are two main options:

Point-of-sale systems

These are often referred to as POS systems,
typically used by fixed-location stores that accept both cash and cards. A POS
system is a complete checkout terminal, often including a barcode scanner, cash
register, credit card swiper and electronic interface.

Modern POS systems combine merchant accounts, software, and hardware to deliver a single system for accepting all kinds of payments. They often come with added functionality, such as inventory tracking and re-ordering.

Payment terminals

Payment terminals are the hand-held machines you see in stores and outdoor markets. Generally, they will either be countertop devices, portable devices, or mobile payment systems.

Countertop devices are often used by small businesses
which only have a single physical point for transactions. They are
electronically connected to the merchant account provider, usually via an
ethernet connection or telephone line.

Portable devices look very similar to
countertop card readers but aren’t physically connected to the terminal. They
work via a Bluetooth signal, allowing them to be moved around the store.

Mobile payment machines are connected via
wireless networks, allowing business owners to accept payments anywhere. These
machines connect to a phone or tablet, usually running a card reader
application. They are a good option for businesses that don’t have a single
location, such as food trucks, taxi services and pop-up stores.

Whichever hardware you choose, always look for machines that are PCI-compliant, meaning they have been approved by the Payment Card Industry standards. It’s also a good idea to look at user reviews and industry feedback before choosing a card reader for your business.

The best machine for you will depend on whether you’re looking for mobile, countertop or portable card machines. However, there are a few market-leading brands that you should consider, including Ingenico, iZettle, Worldpay, SumUp, PayPal, and VeriFone. 

Finally, it’s worth checking that your small business insurance covers this kind of equipment and any possible data breaches that may occur.

How to Accept Payments Online

If your small business is based online,
accepting credit card payments is slightly different. To accept online
payments, you’ll need a payment gateway, as well as a website with the ability
to take payments. You’ll also still need a merchant account or all-in-one
system as discussed earlier.

Payment gateways

This is a secure portal that connects your
merchant account to your customer’s bank account or credit provider. The
payment gateway ensures the payment reaches your merchant account securely,
allowing you to take payments via your website.

There are many good payment gateway providers available, with varying levels of functionality and fees. Many website owners will opt for an all-in-one solution like PayPal or Stripe, which will provide the merchant account and payment gateway in one system. Some providers, such as Shopify and Constant Contact, offer the website solution along with the payment gateway and merchant account in one service.

Top payment gateways include:

  • Stripe
  • Payline
  • Adyen
  • Paypal Payments Pro

Take some time to research the best payment gateways to find the solution that’s most suitable for your needs.

Online platform

For customers to make purchases online, you’ll
need a way to collect customer data and record the sale. Most businesses do
this through a website.

There are numerous ways to get a shop online, from building an HTML website and sourcing hosting, to using a content management system (CMS) such as WordPress or Squarespace. You can even build a site using a specialist ecommerce website builder, such as Shopify or Weebly, or an all-in-one solution like Constant Contact.

Constant Contact’s all-in-one solution combines your website, online store, and marketing for easier store setup and management.

Keep in mind that users will want to know that
their details are secure when using your site. Many providers will offer
functionality to ensure customers information is encrypted, either through
third-party services or by integrated security features.

Some of the top online platforms to consider

  • Constant Contact
  • Wix
  • Weebly
  • SquareSpace
  • 1&1
  • GoDaddy

How to Accept Payments Over the Phone

For some businesses, the ability to take card
payments over the phone is important. There are a couple of ways you can do

Virtual terminals

Virtual terminals allow you to take payments
over the phone using a secure web interface. There are lots of different
providers for this service, often very competitively priced, but good options
include Square, Dharma, Quickbooks Payments, PayPal Payments Pro and Shopify

A virtual terminal will allow you to input the
customer’s card details into an online platform, leaving any card machine you
have free to serve customers in your store. Often, they will come with
additional benefits such as real-time reporting and integrated risk management.

Using your card reader device

If you have a card reader device, you can use this to accept payments over the phone. Usually, you will need to the 16-digit code on the front of the card, the customer’s name, the expiration date, and the associated billing address. You may also need the last three digits of the security code on the back of the credit card.

In order to take the payment, you will need to
enter the 16-digit card number into the machine, and then follow the on-screen
prompts to enter the rest of the information.

Once the transaction is completed, you should
file your copy of the credit card receipt and post the customer’s copy to them,
along with any physical product they’ve ordered.

Using a mobile application

Some payment providers such as Square allow you
to process credit card payments using your smartphone, without the need for a
card reader. This is usually done via a mobile app.

As with using a card reader device, you will
need to take the 16-digit card number, security code, expiration date and the
billing address over the phone. Simply input this information into the app,
ensure you’ve selected the appropriate option to avoid needing a digital
signature and complete the payment. These apps will often allow you to email
the receipt directly to your customer.

Security and Risks

Taking credit card payments does present some
additional security concerns, particularly if you’re storing customer details.
To mitigate the risks associated with taking card payments, you can: 

  • Elect not to store customer payment card data or personal details
  • Develop suitable employee payment card data handling policies. These might include implementing a ‘clear desk’ policy (where all confidential information is removed or locked away when not in use) or ensuring no customer information is ever sent via email
  • Always verify shipping and billing addresses
  • Protect any data you do store with physical and virtual security methods. This might include the use of restricted server access, storage and cabinet locks, user authentication, secure passwords, etc.
  • Use and regularly update ant-virus software. Strong brands in this area include Bitdefender, Norton, McAfee, and AVG 
  • Develop and maintain a policy that addresses information security
  • Use 3-D Secure authentication products such as Address Verification Service (AVS), MasterCard SecureCode, Verified by Visa and SafeKey.

Taking credit card payments does involve some research, investment, and integration into your business. But once you have the right merchant account, hardware, and security policies in place, you can begin to reap the benefits of taking card payments, attract more customers and grow your business.