Shopping for a Payment Gateway and Merchant Account

Whether you're setting up shop online or considering switching services, we outline what you need to know when deciding on a merchant account and payment gateway.
Payment gateways and merchant accounts are always hot topics in our forums, as is offering potential customers the flexibility to pay by credit card and debit card. To help e-tailers who aren't sure exactly what they need when setting up shop, or for those who are considering switching or adding services, we've outlined the basics you need to know.

There are many options for both merchant accounts and payment gateways, but they do differ greatly from one to the next. Before we lunge headlong into a search for either, though, we need to understand what they both do.

What A Payment Gateway Does
When a consumer clicks on the "pay now" button and submits his or her personal and financial information, these details are passed through your secure server to a payment gateway. Essentially this is the same as a till, or POS (point-of-sale) system in a brick-and-mortar store and acts like a middleman between banks. The transaction details are encrypted and passed from the payment gateway through to the merchant account bank.

What A Merchant Account Does
Your merchant account bank then requests authorization from the issuing bank to complete the payment. The issuing bank responds via the payment gateway outlining whether the payment was successful or not along with any reasons why the payment was not successful. The payment gateway then processes this response and sends the relevant information back to your Web site and to your customer.

Hybrid Solutions
While this may seem complex, the entire process takes just a couple of seconds and requires no intervention from you or your customers. Both aspects of this transaction process are essential, although hybrids exist that combine both. For instance, PayPal integrates a payment gateway system and a merchant account making the process much easier and more fluent, but the costs are a little higher than when using two separate accounts.

Always do your homework and research to ensure you are getting the best deal for features you require. Some of the more important features to consider include:
  • Shopping cart compatibility
  • Whether a separate merchant account is required
  • Fees and payments
  • Hidden costs
  • Chargeback or refund costs
  • Fraud prevention and security measures
  • Reporting and account management

Shopping Cart Compatibility
One of the most crucial aspects of choosing a payment gateway is ensuring that it is fully compatible with your choice of shopping cart. Many payment gateways and shopping carts can be configured to integrate with one another, but you want to be sure yours will work together. Most payment gateway services also provide extensive fraud prevention systems that can, in the long run, save you time and heartache.

Full Payment Gateway And Merchant Account Features
If you are setting up a new online business then it is unlikely that your business will have a positive credit history. Under these circumstances it can prove difficult to gain access to a merchant account. If this is the case, you should attempt to find a payment gateway that includes some merchant account features. 2CheckOut and PayPal enable you to process and accept credit card payments without the need for a separate merchant account. The fees are comparatively higher, but ignoring the credit card section of the market will cost a lot more in lost revenue.

Fees And Payments
The fees you will have to pay should obviously play an important factor in your decision. The first thing to note is the difference in price between using separate payment gateway and merchant account when compared to using a fully integrated service like PayPal.

Payment Gateway Fees
Unfortunately, fees can be complicated with some accounts. It may be necessary to pay a setup fee, and you will also be required to pay a percentage of any transactions, generally equivalent to between 1.5 percent and 2 percent. A fixed fee per transaction that's usually less than 50 cents may also be required as well as a monthly management and administration fee, which could be anywhere up to $100.

Different accounts offer different options and your sales figures will determine the right choice for you. If you sell a small number of higher value items then you should try to find a payment gateway that charges a fixed fee. In contrast, if you sell large amounts of items for minimal cost, then you should avoid this fixed fee and concentrate on accounts that offer fees based on a percentage of transactions.

Combined Account Fees
Payment gateways that do not require a merchant account do generally incur greater costs, because they combine the two required aspects of processing a payment. While some services charge as much as 50 cents per transaction plus a 4 percent to 5 percentfee, PayPal is one of the cheapest available options with a 30-cent and 1.9 percent to 2.9 percent fee on all transactions. With no set-up fee and no gateway fees. this makes PayPal genuine value for money. Similar services like NoChex offer similar rates. Another point worth noting is that services like these do not tend to charge refund fees, monthly or annual fees or regular administration fees.

Merchant Account Fees
Individual merchant accounts have similar fees to PayPal but they also generally require a set-up fee and a monthly payment. Ultimately the choice is yours and while PayPal does offer good overall value, it is more difficult to integrate into a Web site despite recent additions to its merchant tools section.

Hidden Fees
Always check the terms and conditions before you sign up for any account. Hidden fees may exist in the form of extra monthly administration costs. Some merchant accounts charge fees for withdrawals or for currency conversions. They will almost certainly levy a fee for chargebacks (refunds to your customer's credit card) so extra care should be taken when choosing an account.


Fraud Prevention
Fraud prevention and security are important considerations. Some payment gateways do offer fraud prevention measures and all should provide a level of online security. Risk management tools are much more commonly found with merchant accounts and hybrid solutions although some services may seem like they are leaving you in the wilderness to decide for yourself.

Reporting And Account Managing
Finally, we should look at the reporting and account management features that are offered. Hybrid solutions like PayPal tend to offer a reasonable range of reporting with details of all transactions including withdrawals to your bank account, credits, debits and any refunds. Always attempt to check the extent of reporting available to you before opting for a particular account. In general, all account management options should be accessible through the Internet and easy to change.

Hybrids Generally Best Route
For convenience and affordability, hybrid solutions tend to offer the best option. They work out much cheaper because the payments are combined and with competition heating up in this area, things are only likely to improve in the future. PayPal is one of the most widely used of the hybrid solutions because its rates are among the cheapest available. Look around before opting for the first available account, though, because every business and every e-commerce venture has its own different requirements.

Matt Jackson is a regular contributor to ECommerce-Guide.com and a provider of Web site content and articles for new media publication. For more information visit his Web site at webwisewords.com.

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