American Express has traditionally held a negative reputation among many business owners, especially those who own small businesses. The credit card payment network historically made things very difficult for merchants to accept American Express payments.
It charged high flat-rate processing fees that were more expensive than those of Visa or Mastercard. Businesses were unable to leverage their successes to negotiate these fees. Additionally, acceptance required businesses to have a separate merchant account just for American Express payments.
These details deterred many businesses from accepting American Express. Many consumers, in turn, were aware of Amex’s limited acceptance and have been hesitant to sign up for the card.
Things have recently taken a drastic change, however. A February 2020 Nilson report announced that in 2019 nearly all merchants who accept credit cards now accept American Express.
According to the Nilson report, cardholders can now use their American Express credit cards at 99% of merchants who accept credit cards. American Express added 1 million now merchant locations in 2019 alone. In total, 2019 saw 10.6 million U.S. merchants accept this payment network.
This acceptance rate is presently limited to merchants within the United States. However, American Express did also add over 2 million new international merchants to its numbers in 2019. And the company plans to add even more oversees merchants in the future.
How American Express Changed Its Public Image
Most of American Express’s success was the result of focused marketing and public relations efforts. According to the Amex website, it had to change “outdated misperceptions” about its accessibility.
You could say that the company was charged with a major reputation management task. It needed to convince small and emerging businesses that accepting American Express was not only beneficial but also affordable and easy. At the same time, it didn’t want to alienate cardholders by changing its elite image.
American Express began with a PR project during the height of the great recession. It launched a Shop Small campaign that encouraged cardholders to support local businesses. It quotes a statistic that states that $0.67 of every dollar spent at a local small business remains in the community.
The company publishes short documentary series on small businesses throughout the country. It also provides business owners free marketing tools – flyers, PDF images, templates – to promote themselves. The Amex website also includes ideas and resources to help members of the community launch their own small business events and grassroots marketing campaigns.
Amex bolstered this campaign with a Small Business Saturday campaign back in 2010. It promoted the idea of shopping at local small businesses the day after Black Friday. The Obama administration supported the idea, and before long all 50 states had implemented Small Business Saturday as a small business shopping event.
American Express’s Concrete Changes
However, PR and marketing will only get a company so far. It’s easy to pay lip service to supporting small businesses. But if American Express didn’t make any real changes to how it handled merchants, the public could have seen its campaigns as empty promises. This could have spawned a PR nightmare.
Fortunately, Amex backed its marketing with policy changes and new features to help small and emerging business owners. In 2014, the company launched OptBlue, which has been instrumental in this credit card’s nearly universal acceptance rate in 2019.
This program did away with one of the major deterrents for many merchants: the American Express merchant account. Merchants no longer need to sign up for a separate account just to accept Amex payments. OptBlue lets business owners accept American Express through their existing merchant account providers.
Merchant account providers include companies like Square, which has marketed itself as the go-to source for small business owners. When a business owner signs up for a provider like Square, they’ll already get access to American Express payments.
What’s more, merchants can keep track of all payments in one place. There’s no more need to set up a separate merchant account just for Amex payments.
But what really attracted so many business owners to OptBlue had almost everything to do with the bottom line. With this program, Amex did away with its flat-rate interchange fees. Instead, merchant account providers negotiate fees on merchants’ behalf.
The result is a merchant fee structure that is on par with those that Visa, Mastercard, and Discover employ. Many merchants are now finding that the differences between American Express OptBlue and other credit cards’ interchange fees are almost negligible.
And that’s how you raise a credit card payment network’s acceptance rate to nearly 100%.