Complete Guide To Credit Card Machines And Terminals

We don’t typically think about what happens in the moments after we swipe our debit and/or credit cards. More often than not, we simply run or insert our card into the credit card machine and hope that the cashier doesn’t use the next few moments to initiate small talk. The number in our checking account decreases or the number on our credit card bill increases, and that’s all we care about.

But, to the business owner, credit card processing is exceptionally important and it can play a huge role in your bottom line. There’s a lot of information to take in if you’re a novice when it comes to credit card processing, and you’ll need to decide what elements are most important to your business. Do you need mobility when accepting payments? Will you be accepting transactions online or over the phone? What security measures should you be taking to protect both your business and your customers? What companies are highly rated or come heavily recommended?

We’ll try and answer the bulk of your questions about credit card machines and terminals below.

Credit Card Machines

Credit card technology has evolved rapidly over the years. It doesn’t seem like that long ago when the process involved a terminal with just the option for credit. Then came debit cards. As the internet became the world’s go to for conducting business, the processing game had to change as well. Now, merchants can take payments with readers connected to their phones or tablets — they can even accept payments remotely without the physical card present. This has created a need for increased security which has led to encryption technology and the relatively recent advent of the EMV chip card.

Before we get into that, however, let’s start with some basics about credit card transactions. You have, no doubt, used hundreds of different types of card readers throughout your illustrious tenure as a consumer. But what happens once your card’s magnetic strip has been read? In simple terms, there are three phases involved in actual processing:

  • Authorization: Once your card is scanned, its information is sent over with a request to be processed. The processing request is then sent to the company of the cardholder (VISA, Mastercard etc…). The company sends the request on to the issuing bank. If there are enough funds in the account, and if the card is registered as valid, the purchase is approved. All of this takes place in a matter of seconds, generally speaking.
  • Settling: After a transaction has been approved, it is forwarded on to be cleared via an interchange. When the request is received, a credit is given to the merchant for the amount of the sale. The bank will then issue a statement to the customer in that amount which the customer must then pay off.
  • Funding: So far in the transaction, no actual money has changed hands. After the card has been authorized and the credit is issued, the payment company then makes a deposit into the merchant’s checking account. These funds can generally be accessed in just a few days.

In order to accept these forms of payment, you will need some type of card reader. Your options here have also evolved rapidly in the past couple of decades. The most common type of credit card machine is still the stationary card terminal. This is a machine that needs a physical connection either to a phone line or to the internet in order to process physical cards.

The next type of machine, and one that is rapidly gaining in popularity, is the wireless processor. These often look very similar to a stationary device, using a magnetic strip or chip reader to take a customer’s card information. However, these devices only require a wireless connection, making them far more versatile and mobile for merchants (albeit with slightly higher security concerns).

Finally, you can also accept payments via a virtual terminal, something we’ll get into more thoroughly a little bit later. In short, virtual terminals allow you to take a customer’s card information without that card being physically present.

Of course, within these different machines, you’ll have some other hardware choices to make. One item you may want to look into is a PIN pad. With this device, customers can manually type in their debit card password to process a payment. Debit cards with either a VISA or Mastercard logo can be processed almost identically to credit cards. However, with a PIN pad, a transaction that is specifically run as debit usually costs the merchant a smaller fee. This ends up saving you a lot of money in the long run, particularly on large transactions.

Some point of sale systems have this technology built-in, allowing customers to enter their PIN numbers on a touchscreen. PIN pads encrypt a customer’s information, giving an inherent level of security on those transactions. As previously mentioned, you don’t need a PIN pad to run these types of transactions. A signature debit card is processed just like a credit card, but the money comes directly from a customer’s checking account. However, in most instances, the merchant is still charged the same rate as if the transaction was run as credit.

One of the more recent changes in the world of credit card processing has been the introduction of the chip card. EMV (which stands for Europay, Mastercard, VISA) is a method of payment based on a standard for cards and machines that is meant to dramatically reduce the possibility for fraud when it comes to credit card payments. EMV cards store data in a chip within the card that is scanned when it is “dipped” or inserted into a card reader or payment machine. Companies have been steadily trying to meet EMV standards and the majority of processors and point of sale companies are now EMV compliant or claim to be in the process of becoming compliant in the near future. VISA and Mastercard have also issued standards for card-not-present transactions as a way to increase security measures in the world of eCommerce.

It’s difficult to predict what the future will look like when it comes to payment processing, but one trend that seems like a near sure bet is that consumers will continue to seek out convenience. This means that services like Apple and Android Pay will probably continue to spike in popularity. Given society’s increased dependence on iPhones for everything from communication to driving directions, the ability to pay with one’s phone is something all companies will want to make sure they can handle — sooner rather than later.

Looking for a credit card machine for your business? Buy, don’t lease! 

Virtual Terminals

What is a virtual terminal? Let’s delve in deeper to get a sense of whether or not it’s a solution your business needs. Virtual terminals are online applications that allow customers to input credit card information directly online to then be processed electronically. These terminals allow for transactions to be processed even when a credit card is not physically present. This can be an ideal solution for any business that is highly mobile or conducting transactions remotely with clients.

Many companies, including PayPal and Helcim, offer the ability to use a virtual terminal for payments. The implementation process is exceedingly simple. Generally, for a small, monthly fee, your processor can give you the ability to enter payment information from pretty much anywhere with an internet connection. Most companies will offer a percentage rate and a flat fee for virtual terminal transactions. This fee is often slightly higher than it would be for a typical transaction as card-not-present transactions have a slightly higher risk of fraud.

With PayPal, for example, all you need is a phone, tablet or computer and you can quickly log in to your account and go to the virtual terminal setting. This leads you to a screen similar to one you would see if you were entering your own information online for a purchase. Once the information is entered, you’ll receive confirmation. 

This simplicity and flexibility has made the virtual terminal an increasingly popular way for businesses of all types — not just mail order or eCommerce businesses — to accept payments. An increasing number of companies are now also offering USB card readers that connect directly to your terminal. These automatically take the card information and run it through your virtual terminal, keeping your transactions in the same location but charging you a lower rate since the card is present at the time. Some of these same companies offer pads which can collect customer signatures in the same way. Even with an external card reader, virtual terminals are usually not designed to accept advanced payment types, like contactless payments, from mobile wallets such as ApplePay. If you want to accept contactless payments, you’re better off getting a standard NFC-enabled credit card machine or credit card reader.

Virtual terminals can also take automated clearinghouse (ACH) payments for one-time or recurring transactions. These payments are processed in bunches, meaning the payment is usually received a little later. However, you aren’t subject to interchange fees for these payments.

Obviously, when making or accepting payments where credit card information is simply entered online, security is going to be of the utmost importance. It is highly recommended that you choose a payment provider that encrypts credit card data; this both reduces the risk of theft and the scope of the Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance.

From there, you will generally have two options.

You can choose a non-validated solution which can cut down the risk of having data stolen. This is an affordable option that is offered by most processing companies, though these solutions are not defined as secure by the PCI. In other words, there is an increased chance that hackers could gain access to encryption keys which could eventually lead to a data breach.

The other option is a PCI point-to-point (P2PE) provider which meets all of the PCI standards and includes secure hardware. Processors that provide this level of protection must accept Merchant P2PE Implementation Responsibilities. Because of this added security, a much smaller number of processors offer this service (although that list is growing). If you are set on providing increased security, you will need to make sure you have hardware that meets these standards — you will also have to submit to regular security check-ups.

Merchant Services

When we talk about merchant services, what exactly do we mean? In simple terms, ‘merchant services’ is a broad term to describe the hardware and software products that make it possible to accept credit and debit card transactions. These companies and services help to connect the issuing bank (the bank that gave your customers their credit cards) and the merchant bank (the bank that is behind your merchant account). In the last couple of decades, this term has expanded to include much more than just your standard terminal scanner. The internet has opened the door for payments to be made online and those purchases can be tracked and managed from your computer or mobile device.

Merchant services providers are any businesses which accept payments (aside from just cash and checks). These can include credit and debit card processors, point of sale terminals, analytic software etc. There are a handful of different kinds of merchant services providers, including:

  • Merchant Account Providers: These providers can set you up with a merchant account and services that allow you to collect your money following a debit or credit card transaction. Some larger companies also come with direct processing services.
  • Payment Service Providers: Even though it’s advisable, it’s not essential to have a merchant account to process payments. Payment service providers, like the ubiquitous PayPal, don’t give you an ID number and are popular because they generally do not come with account fees or long-term contracts. These accounts can be frozen, sometimes without notice, and customer service can be sketchy. However, for smaller or seasonal businesses, payment service providers are a popular choice.
  • Payment Gateway Providers: Payment gateway providers represent a service provider that has emerged with increased popularity of eCommerce. These providers may or may not come with a merchant account. Some give you a choice of using their own merchant account or using a gateway with an existing account. Others only offer a gateway service, meaning you’ll have to have a merchant account from a third party.

When you’re looking at various card processors, there are a few things that you should keep an eye on. Perhaps most importantly you’ll want to research the company’s reputation. Processing payments is a crucial aspect of your business and an unreliable company can give you a lot of headaches (and affect your bottom line).

You’ll also want to compare the costs and potential fees that various processors implement. Square, for example, charges no monthly fee, which is yet another appeal for smaller or mid-sized companies. However, they also implement a 2.75% fee on transactions — if your business takes off and you’re suddenly processing a high number of transactions, those fees will add up and quickly wipe out any savings you’re receiving from not paying a monthly fee.

You’ll also want to doublecheck the compatibility of your processor. If, for instance, you’ve found a point of sale system that you are comfortable with, you’ll want to make sure that the processor integrates seamlessly without additional costs. If you’re forced to set up an aforementioned gateway, you could end up paying a large monthly fee.

To enable transactions, merchants will have to fill out an application. If you’re opening a merchant account, this process can take a little longer than going through a third-party processor. One of the reasons smaller and mid-sized merchants lean towards a third-processing account like Square is that you can be up and ready to take payments almost immediately. The price for that instant gratification, however, is an increased likelihood for potential account freezes later on.

When you’re in the process of picking out a processor, you’ll also want to pay close attention to transaction fees. The best merchant account providers usually offer what is referred to as interchange-plus pricing. This means that the provider takes the wholesale cost of the transaction and tacks on a small, standardized markup. This ensures an affordable and transparent pricing plan. It also means a slightly higher rate for transactions when a card isn’t physically present since those transactions have a higher frequency of fraud. Third-party processors sometimes provide a flat rate for all transactions — this is convenient and offers a simple way to quickly figure out your fees. However, it may not be the most cost-efficient in the grand scheme of things. A company like Square, which offers a flat rate for swiped and dipped transactions, also charges a slightly higher rate for key-in and eCommerce transactions.

There are a few other things you’ll want to watch out for when finalizing your decision about a merchant accounts provider. Along with the potential for account freezes or funding holds, keep an eye on how businesses handle chargebacks (where customers dispute a charge) and fraudulent charges in general. There are ways to mitigate these dangers, of course. You can use fraud management tools, including things like address verification services. Using a chip card terminal also dramatically cuts back on fraudulent charges.

Here are a few of our most highly recommended processing companies:

  • Fattmerchant: Fattmerchant is one of the best companies for eCommerce transactions. Its pricing is transparent without undisclosed fees. There is also a 0% markup, meaning you pay only the wholesale cost plus the monthly fee and a small authorization fee. Fattmerchant also has terrific customer service.
  • Dharma: Dharma provides a full array of processing services and also has a simple, affordable pricing structure without hidden fees. They exclusively use the interchange-plus format and are a particularly good choice for non-profits, as they offer a discount to those companies.
  • Helcim: For slightly large companies, Helcim is a very strong option. While offering a wide range of services, they have extremely competitive rates for companies that process more than $2500 a month. They also have very strong customer service and their fee structure is transparent and easy to understand.
  • Square: For companies that don’t provide a full-service merchant account, Square is the standard bearer. There is no monthly account fee and they offer free or low-cost readers. Square also doesn’t force you to sign up for a long-term contract or charge you for early termination.

Your POS System

Another way to process payments is through your POS or point of sale system. Point of sale systems have come a long way, especially in the past decade. Today, you can virtually run your entire business from one, simple device. With the influx of cloud-based systems, you can make snap decisions and check the status of your operation from anywhere with a wireless connection.

With so many options available, and with point of sale systems offering more and more features all the time, choosing the correct system to meet your needs is an important decision. The first thing you’ll need to decide is whether you want a system that is cloud-based or locally installed. Most companies have been moving toward cloud-based options for numerous reasons. First and foremost, it’s incredibly convenient. All of your data is automatically stored off-premise, so if something happens to your store or to your system, all of your payment, customer, and inventory information is still accessible. These systems are often extremely user-friendly as well, designed to be intuitive with very little training time needed. They tend to be sleek, modern, and visually appealing both to your customers and employees.

Many cloud-based systems also perform routine updates automatically, fixing bugs and adding new features so that you always have the most current software at your fingertips. Along these same lines, the best POS systems sync seamlessly to any number of integrations that can help your business in ways you may not have even considered before.

When you’re looking at purchasing a POS system, there are a number of factors to keep in mind. First and foremost, it’s likely that the cost of the POS hardware and software is going to play a large role. Some systems allow you to purchase your system and all necessary hardware upfront for a flat rate, allowing you to own the software. But if dropping a few thousand dollars isn’t something you’re comfortable with, the majority of point of sale companies offer monthly rates. A few companies, such as Square, offer a free version of their software that is generally suited for small operations, though most other POS software systems run anywhere from $39 to $99 a month for basic services while often offering advanced packages with additional features.

Let’s talk about some features you can expect to find in pretty much any good, modern point of sale system:

  • Inventory Management: Not only can you view all of your stock on hand, you can set your POS to alert you when certain products are running low or, even more conveniently, you can set the system to automatically reorder products when they hit a certain level. This can be an enormous time saver and, in most systems, inventory management can be accessed remotely. You can set up quick transfers across multiple locations and, in many cases, create and print your own purchase orders.
  • Employee Management: Likewise, your staff is easy to track and manage from your centralized POS station. You can set permissions and create alerts for suspicious transactions to cut down on fraud. Employees can be given unique codes when they log into the system and can view their hours and current schedules.
  • Customer Management: Many point of sale systems come with their own built-in loyalty programs or integrate with other companies for a small monthly fee. But these days, your POS can help with so much more when it comes to analytics and marketing. Most systems allow for customer data to be stored and easily searched. Customers can look up their own loyalty points and control their own profiles in some cases. More useful for business owners, however, is the ability for the system to analyze what items are being purchased by certain customers, assessing buying habits and creating personalized marketing campaigns that can be implemented with ease, helping to maximize profits. The same can be done with coupons, targeting customers to boost repeat business.

You will also want to do your research to see what systems specifically cater to your particular business. For example, if you’re opening a pizza shop, you may want to look for a system with built-in features that makes online ordering simple, or functions that allows customers to create a custom order which is then automatically sent to the kitchen, freeing up your employees. There are also niche POS systems for specific types of businesses. Quetzal, one of our highest-rated systems here at Merchant Maverick, is built for the retail industry with a significant bent towards shoe stores.

Many POS software systems have their own app store, like Clover, or integrate with scores of apps that might help your business out tremendously. If you’re technically savvy, most POS providers also give you access to an open API, meaning that you or a developer can create your own apps within the software.

When you’re doing your research there are a number of other features you’ll want to keep an eye on. Definitely check to see what features come in the form of add-ons which will increase your monthly fee. You will also want to make sure you have appropriate, compatible POS hardware. Several companies offer hardware packages that can be purchased directly through their websites.

A robust reporting feature should be available in most highly-rated systems and many offer their own eCommerce platforms, making it easy to set up your own website and sell online, all from your POS device.

Another key factor to research is what credit card processors are compatible with your system. While some offer a wide range of choices, integrating with most major companies, others lock you into a limited number of options or offer their own processing services for credit card payments, for better or worse.

You’ll also want to see what your system has in terms of an offline mode. Most point of sale systems have evolved to now offer at least some offline functionality, but what you can actually do in the case of an outage can vary. Many systems still function as normal, allowing you to process credit cards, encrypt transactions, and store the data to be run once the internet is restored.

It’s difficult to make a decision, but at Merchant Maverick, we’ve come across a number of point of sale systems that we would happily recommend depending on your business.

  • Shopkeep: Shopkeep is routinely on the top of our lists. This simple and reasonably priced system features everything you would expect in a point of sale system. It’s well suited for small to mid-sized retail shops and restaurants with a sleek design, excellent reporting and management tools, and terrific customer service.
  • Revel: For slightly larger restaurants or retail establishments, we often recommend Revel, a product that can manage multiple locations and large amounts of inventory with ease. Revel is intuitive and extremely robust with a top-notch kiosk function and Kitchen Display System.
  • Lightspeed: Lightspeed is another highly rated company and offers both a Retail and Restaurant product. Lightspeed has great customer service and is easy to set up while also providing intuitive front end and back end features. It also has an excellent and simple to use eCommerce platform.
  • ERPLY: ERPLY is one of the top retail point of sale systems that we’ve reviewed. One of its biggest features is the ability to integrate with most major credit card processors. It also has terrific shipping integrations and excellent customer management tools, particularly when it comes to loyalty.

Final Thoughts

There is obviously a lot to process when it comes to… well… credit card terminals and payment processing. If you’ve made it this far, hopefully you’re feeling a little more confident about your knowledge of credit card processing machines, virtual terminals, merchant services, point of sale systems, and what you should be looking for from the various companies that provide this technology. Make sure you have a good grasp on what each company charges for different transactions and what might be the best option for your type and size of business. Also don’t overlook things like a company’s customer service reputation. It’s a competitive market and you have the ability to make sure you end up with a credit card terminal and processing system that can best help your business thrive.

Interested in learning more? Download our free Beginner’s Guide To Payment Processing.

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