American Express’ small merchant card acceptance has been generally low, though that performance could improve through a partnership with Moneris, Canada’s largest acquirer.

Moneris has joined Amex’s OptBlue program, which enables third-party acquirers to set their own pricing when signing up small businesses to accept Amex cards. Gaining the market’s biggest acquirer could help American Express build momentum with its OptBlue program in Canada where robust small merchant acceptance has been limited to restaurants.

OptBlue, which launched in the U.S. in May 2014 for merchants with less than $1 million in annual Amex charge volume, enables acquirers to set the fees and add American Express card acceptance alongside other major card brands. Small businesses continue to receive a single monthly statement and have one point of contact. Fourteen acquirers have come on board so far and several hundred thousand additional small businesses now accept Amex, the company said.

American Express has not yet released numbers for OptBlue in Canada, which launched in June 2015 and is available to merchants with less than $500,000 in annual Amex volume. Global Payments Canada was the sole participating acquirer when it debuted, and Elavon followed. With Moneris, OptBlue now has participation from about half of Canada’s major acquirers. “We expect the list to grow,” said Kerri-Ann Santaguida, vice president and general manager, merchant services, American Express Canada.

Getting Canadian small businesses to embrace American Express cards could be a tougher challenge up north. “Except for restaurants, most small businesses in Canada don’t accept Amex; penetration is very low,” said Christie Christelis, president of Technology Strategies International, a Toronto-based payments industry research and consulting firm.

Amex historically carried higher fees and catered to an upscale audience seeking luxury, and small businesses typically weren’t interested, he noted.  “To generate growth, Amex would have to shift the perception with merchants and consumers that Amex is now a general purpose card,” Christelis says.

Reversing the perception that Amex is pricier than other cards could take years, Jeff Campbell, Amex’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, told analysts in July 2015 during the company’s second-quarter earnings presentation. To support the effort, Amex has stepped up its marketing to small businesses with increased signage and grass-roots marketing efforts.  

Nick Beique, founder and CEO of Helcim Inc., a Calgary, Canada-based ISO with an office in Seattle and merchant clients on both sides of the border, said OptBlue has been a plus for his U.S. business. Though Helcim, which has a relationship with Elavon, isn’t offering OptBlue to its small-business customers in Canada yet, it may do so in the future. “Canadian small businesses typically don’t ask about Amex,” Beique said. “There’s the usual debate over the perception that Amex is more expensive to accept than other card brands, but in the U.S., I think OptBlue has actually simplified card acceptance for some merchants,” he said.

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