Shrouded Transaction Costs: Must-Take Cards, Discounts and Surcharges

Hélène Bourguignon, Renato Gomes, and Jean Tirole


The proliferation of new payment methods on the Internet rekindles the old and unsettled debate about merchants’ incentive and ability to differentiate price according to payment choice. This paper develops an imperfect-information framework for the analysis of platform and social regulation of card surcharging and cash discounting. It makes three main contributions. First, it identifies the conditions under which concerns about missed sales induce merchants to perceive that they must take the card. Second, it derives a set of predictions about cash discounts, card surcharges and platform fees that shed light on existing evidence. Finally, it shows that the optimal regulation of surcharging is related to public policy toward merchant fees and substantially differs from current practice.


Payment cards; cash discounts; card surcharges; hold-ups in two-sided markets; missed sales;

JEL codes

  • D83: Search • Learning • Information and Knowledge • Communication • Belief
  • L10: General
  • L11: Production, Pricing, and Market Structure • Size Distribution of Firms

Published in

International Journal of Industrial Organization, vol. 63, March 2019, pp. 99–144, forthcoming