Friday, April 06, 2007

A retrospective on the introduction of prices in Norway

Here is quite an interesting retrospective article on the introduction of pricing for retail payments in Norway. The article provides an account of the transition from free services to direct pricing of payment transactions, and the benefits of the transition. The focus is on actual events in the period 1970–1993. Yet, the authors rightly conclude that Norways high usage of cards is due to this direct pricing structure.

If we look at developments in the Netherlands in that same period, we can see a public policy debate around 1970-1973 on retail banking and the benefits of accurate pricing. Yet, due to the competitive pressure of the Postal Giro (offering payment services for free to consumers) there was no way that the banks would introduce direct pricing for payments. It was only at the end of the 1980s (when Postbank was privatised) that a new effort was set up; starting with the direct pricing of business customers (eliminating former value-based pricing structures). That worked out fine, although Postbank maintained a free-service package for small companies.

Then, a couple of years later Rabobank and ABN AMRO introduced direct fees for consumers. This helped quite a lot in terms of steering the public to more efficient payments. But Postbank did not join the effort, so after a number of years, Rabobank and ABN AMRO gradually withdrew their direct transaction pricing. Leaving us all, at this moment, with a hybrid form of pricing for the consumer. Banks generally sell packages or charge annual card fees, but real transaction charges are mostly levied by retailers (commission at the point of sale if debit-card payment is below 10 euro), utilities (extra fees if people choose inefficient and more costly bill payment methods rather than direct debit) or web-companies (charging a 10 euro extra if one chooses to pay with a credit-card).

In comparison with Norway, the Dutch do use the debit-card a lot, but as long as the retailers keep in place their outdated pricing for low-value POS-transaction (a thing that made sense in 1990 when direct telecommunication costs were very high) we will not be able to get at the high usability numbers of Norway.