Merchants opposed to the U.S. migration to EMV-chip cards have long questioned whether the security benefit is worth the expense of putting in new payment terminals. American Express is taking some of the cost out of the equation, but even this move might not be enough to bring most merchants on board.
The card brand has committed $10 million to its EMV Assistance Program, enabling 100,000 eligible merchants to receive a $100 terminal stipend by the end of April. It is also focusing on EMV education through in-person meetings and online sessions.
Costs aside, small merchants are also less likely to be aware of the shift to EMV-chip cards, which improve security over magnetic-stripe cards. Nearly half of the 500 small merchants who responded to an October 2014 American Express survey said they are not aware of the EMV shift's October 2015 deadline and are not sure what to do about it.
It is a problem that a third of the small merchants are "paralyzed" through a lack of knowledge and not planning to upgrade at all, said Anré Williams, president of global merchant services for American Express. "It means that more fraud will get to them when the larger retailers have their EMV terminals because the fraudsters go after the weakest link."
After that deadline, fraud liability shifts to the party unable to accept EMV chip cards. A merchant could choose to stick to magnetic-stripe technology if it is able to absorb these fraud losses or block them through other means, but simply reassigning the liability is not the main goal of the migration.
"This is not about shifting fraud liability from the issuer to the merchant," Williams said. "We are trying to eliminate counterfeit fraud on the American Express network and in the payments industry in general."
To get there, American Express is putting its money where its mouth is in essentially donating to merchants, said Thad Peterson, senior analyst with Boston-based Aite Group.
"This is a great idea and a good way for American Express to contribute to the cause of getting merchants aware of EMV," said Peterson, who authored a recent report that indicated a third of the U.S. small merchant population has never heard of EMV.
Other card brands will accelerate their EMV education programs as well. Whether they will also provide monetary incentives is unclear, Peterson said.
When announcing the EMV liability timeline in 2011, Visa originally offered reduced compliance scope and costs under the PCI data security standard.
American Express has steadily increased its number of small merchant clients over the past five years. This has been accomplished through programs such as its Small Business Saturday sessions and its more recent OptBlue program, which allows acquirers to provide lower-cost acceptance options to lure small merchants.
The company reported late last year that nearly 400,000 small merchants now accept American Express payment cards through OptBlue.
Through the new EMV assistance program, merchants who handle less than $3 million in annual American Express charge volume are eligible to request the $100 contribution, which is provided on an Amex gift card. The April 30 deadline emphasizes that merchants need to get EMV migration plans in place now.
"This is a significant contribution to a small merchant, because many of them have only one, or maybe two, terminals," Williams said. "We are talking about the small hardware store, the small dry cleaners, places where what is needed is less sophisticated."