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What Is A Merchant Account? ms payment logos

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What Is A Merchant Account?

A merchant account is a type of business bank account that enables a business to accept and process electronic payments (i.e. debit and credit card transactions).

When a customer buys something from your business via card, the money is first deposited into the merchant account. Then, as frequently as everyday, these funds are transferred to your business bank account.

Why do I need a merchant account?

Fewer and fewer customers are relying on cash to make payments. In fact, according to estimates, cash will be used in just 9% of purchases by 2028.

The bottom line? Debit cards, credit cards, contactless and smartphone payments have radically changed the way that people purchase goods – both online and in-store. In order to survive the “decline of cash”, every business needs a merchant account.

Do I need a merchant account to take payments?

In short: yes, probably. But it does not have to be a dedicated merchant account.

If you aren’t able to accept card payments, you risk cutting out more than 90% of your potential customer base before the end of the decade.

Merchant accounts for small businesses trading less than £2k per month

Small businesses processing relatively small amounts of card payments each month  – i.e. those taking less than £2,000 in card payments per month – would probably be better off getting a Zettle or Square card reader, neither of which require you to have a dedicated merchant account.

Merchant accounts for small businesses trading over £2k per month

But if your business is taking anything above £2,000 per month via card, you will find that using a merchant account saves on processing fees and allows you to keep more of the money the customer has spent with you.

How does a merchant account work?

To understand the ins and outs of processing payments via a merchant account and in general how a merchant account works, we’re going to break it down step by step:

Step 1: A customer buys something from your business using their credit or debit card.

It doesn’t matter how the customer pays, it could be in person, over the phone or online, the process is the same. Let’s say Helen has just popped in on her way to work to buy a latte from your growing chain of coffee houses.

Step 2: You, as the merchant, contact your merchant acquirer (the acquiring bank) for authorisation.

Some merchant account providers, like Worldpay, are also acquirers. Others simply provide a payment gateway and partner with a separate bank that is the acquirer. We’ll assume that in this example the merchant account is with Worldpay. An instant fraud check is carried out on the transaction.

Step 3: The merchant acquirer requests authorisation from the credit card issuer (e.g. Mastercard).

Worldpay would now pass Helen’s details, and the transaction she is requesting, to Mastercard who issued her credit card originally. A second fraud check is carried out in real-time.

Step 4: The credit card issuer then requests authorisation from the customer’s issuing bank (where their account is held).

Because Mastercard only issues cards, Helen’s credit card account will probably belong to one of the high street banks or an independent company like Capital One.

Helen banks with HSBC which also provide her credit account. There is a third and final fraud check. (This is to protect you as a business, and Helen as a customer.)

Step 5: The issuing bank authorises the transaction and sends this information to the merchant (that’s you again).

HSBC knows Helen can afford the latte and is confident the transaction is not fraudulent. So they authorise the purchase and send that information back to you, the merchant.

Step 6: You complete the transaction with your customer
Helen leaves to enjoy her coffee and you move on to serve the next person in line.

Step 7: The issuing bank pays your merchant acquirer’s account the amount the customer spent.

Because Helen is buying on a credit card, HSBC will pay the value of the latte to Worldpay, knowing that Helen will pay them back.

Step 8: This amount is passed to you after what is called the ‘processing period’ (usually 1–3 days)

Knowing that HSBC has paid, or will pay them very soon, Worldpay deposits the value of Helen’s latte into your business bank account. The final authorisations and processing between the various banks normally take between 1-3 business days, so this is when you will receive the money for Helen’s latte.

What else will I need to accept card payments?

A merchant account is not the only thing you’ll need before you can accept card payments from customers. Remember: your merchant account is what customers pay into. But you need to give them a way of doing that.

Depending on what type of business you have, and how your customers buy from you, you will need at least one of the following:

Card Machines

We mentioned that a basic card reader might be suitable for businesses processing less than £2,000 per month in card purchases, but for anything above this a merchant account is strongly recommended, and they all offer card machines (also called POS, or point-of-sale machines).

You can purchase a card machine outright or rent them for a monthly fee from your merchant account provider.

Virtual Terminals

For sales made over the phone or by mail, a mail order/telephone order (MOTO) merchant account is required, plus a virtual terminal. The virtual terminal allows you to manually input customer details and request payments without them being present.

Payment Gateways

If customers want to pay you online, then you need a payment gateway. Most merchant acquirers offer their account holders a payment gateway, as do the big ecommerce names like Amazon and Shopify.

A payment gateway gives customers a secure way to pay for products or services online, with features including pay by link, possible integrations with accounting and CRM software, and the ability to customise and give your customers a great online shopping experience.

How much do merchant accounts cost?

Every merchant account comes with fees attached. Here is our breakdown of the average costs for the various services on offer.

FeeTypical CostCharge Frequency
Debit Card Processing0.5% – 1.5%Per transaction
Credit Card Processing1% – 3%Per transaction
Authorisation Fee1p – 3pPer transaction
Card Machine Rental£15 – £25Monthly
MOTO Virtual Terminal£10 – £20Monthly
Payment Gateway£15 – £30Monthly
Minimum Monthly Service Charge (MMSC)*£10 – £20Monthly
PCI Compliance**£10 – £20Monthly

* This will only apply if you do not process the contractually agreed number of purchases in any given month.
** You don’t have to pay your merchant account provider for PCI compliance as long as you have proof of compliance from elsewhere.

But there are other fees to consider too, like chargeback and interchange fees. Chargeback fees are rare and interchange fees are set by the EU at 0.2% for debit cards and 0.3% for credit cards.

What types of merchant account are there? 

There are 3 main types of merchant account, and they suit different types of businesses.

Dedicated Merchant Account

Larger businesses will find the best rates by opening a dedicated merchant account and negotiating a bespoke pricing structure. Dedicated merchant accounts are available from major merchant acquirers such as Worldpay, Global Payments or Lloyds Bank Cardnet.

Are dedicated merchant accounts worth the money?

So why are dedicated merchant accounts worth the money? Not only do you get exceptional support, but merchant account providers also give you everything else you need to accept card payments including POS machines, virtual terminals and payment gateways. What’s more, the payment period is reliably swift.

Aggregate Merchant Account

Often the best option or smaller businesses, aggregate merchant accounts offer lower rates by pooling (or aggregating) a lot of purchases together and processing them as one large transaction.

Aggregate merchant accounts are offered by payment facilitators (PayFacs) like Square or Zettle which are often better choices for businesses with a relatively low level of card transactions per month. Transactions will be processed along with those from other businesses with the same code.

Processing times are a little longer as a result, but small businesses can save 1-2% on processing fees as a trade-off.

High-Risk Merchant Accounts

The same principle of financial risk that applies to individuals applies to merchant accounts. If your business is viewed as high risk, whether because it’s a new business, you serve a high-risk market or one of the directors has a less-than-stellar record, you might find you can’t get an aggregate or dedicated merchant account.

What if you can’t get a merchant account?

If this is the case, then specialist high-risk merchant account providers could help. Rates are, predictably, higher with these companies. But for the sake of getting your business up and running – and accepting card payments – that might be a cost you have to bear. At least temporarily.

Companies like Instabill, CCBill and Paydoo cater specifically for high-risk sectors.

How do you get a merchant account?

If you have shortlisted some merchant account providers and it is likely they will want some of the information below before approving top open a merchant account:
  • Details of your business, including what you do and who you do it for.
  • Financial reports cover the lifetime of your business.
  • Forecast of expected monthly card sales.
  • Average transaction size (or a forecast of this).
  • Business plan (more important if you are a startup).

Some providers will not require such comprehensive information and getting approved with a merchant account provider will depend on several factors. If you are not sure who to select, or want some support in the application process, then please fill in our short form and we’ll be glad to help (we’ll call you to discuss your requirements). 

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