Shop Talk: Practical answers for tough business questions

by : 
Kim Perkins
August 1, 2013

Dear Readers,
In last issue’s Shop Talk column, I answered a question from a reader expressing concern about the high cost of accepting American Express cards. The following are responses I received that I think will be of interest to all.

The first response came from Carolee in Maryland. She contacted Retailing Insight because she recently discovered that The Square—a portable device for accepting credit cards I mentioned as a possible alternative to high Amex processing fees—does not allow the sale of “occult” items. I thought that was really interesting. Here are the details she provided:

I wanted to give you a “heads up” on The Square, mentioned briefly in this month’s issue of Shop Talk. It may interest your readers that buried in the contract for The Square reader is a paragraph pertaining to disallowed items. Among the expected banned items, such as illegal drugs and assault weapons, is “occult materials.” What they determine to be “occult materials” I do not know. How much of a problem this is or could be for stores such as mine I also do not know but felt your readers may be interested in knowing about it. We personally do not want to deal with a company that feels compelled to make those judgments.

In researching this issue, I found that Carolee was absolutely correct. I decided to write to American Express and see if they would give me a definition for what they consider “occult materials.” Below is my email and the response I received from Square Support:

My question to Square: I write a business column for a national retail trade publication and recently recommended The Square to our readers, some of which are mainstream book and gift stores and others are metaphysical stores. I have received replies questioning the definition of “occult materials” in the User Agreement. Can you please tell me your definition, as this is very broad and could mean anything from candles to books on Wiccan and magic. Can you please give me and my readers a clearer description of what they would not be allowed to sell?

Thank you, Kim Perkins

My response from Square: Thanks for writing in. The prohibition on using Square to sell “occult materials” and whether or not an item falls under that prohibition is dependent on the purpose for which the item is sold.

The claim that an item they are selling can perform a supernatural or metaphysical act or can be used in a way that is outside the normal physical limitations of the item would be considered an occult item and would be prohibited under this section 6 of the Seller Agreement.

So long as they are not promoting, advertising, or otherwise claiming that what they are selling can do this, your readers are able to process payments using Square. —Michael, Square Support

I felt their response was nebulous. Saying “can perform a supernatural or metaphysical act” or “is outside the normal physical limitations of the item,” still leaves a lot of room for debate. Would that classify sage bundles and essential oils as occult items? What about singing bowls, sound healing music, and jewelry with healing stones? In the case of crystals, all stones (and everything on the planet, according to scientific studies) carry a vibration. And, vibrations do affect us physically and emotionally, so is that outside the normal physical limitations of the crystal? I guess the key is whether or not we “promote or advertise items in the store that have metaphysical properties,” which, for us, would be a hard call.

I decided to dig a bit further and talk to some of their competitors. My attempts to reach Paypal were not answered, and I could not locate their full User Agreement online, so I do not know if they also include a prohibition clause for occult materials. But, I did see that Intuit, makers of the GoPayment credit card swiper, also includes “occult materials” on their list of unacceptable items, along with travel and escort services.

In speaking with the underwriting department at Intuit to try to get some clarity, I was told they “do not have a definition of occult materials” and they “could not give me their criteria.” All they could offer was “when an application comes in, we will review it and let the applicant know if it is approved or denied.”

So, my revised answer to last issue’s question about American Express is to disregard what I said about using The Square. I recommend not using these portable devices to process sales until and unless they change or at least clarify their position.

The good news is that I also received this response to the same Q&A from Donna in Texas:

Dear Kim, I read your reply in Retailing Insight magazine to a question by one of your readers re: American Express Cards. A few months ago I decided I could no longer afford Amex for the same reasons expressed in your column. I’ve owned an art gallery for 13 years and also find that buyers of the more expensive pieces use Amex, but my thinking was, “Everyone has a Visa or Mastercard, too.”

I called Amex directly to cancel. They were incredibly kind, personable, and understanding of the “small business” perspective and not only lowered my discount rate to below what Visa/Mastercard charge, they refunded the monthly service charge for the past twelve months and now are no longer charging a service charge at all!

I’m usually pretty critical of the whole credit card industry, but I have been pleasantly surprised by this experience.

Thanks so much to all of our readers who take the time to share their knowledge and experience!

Kim Perkins is co-owner of Elysian Fields Books & Gifts for Conscious Living (www.elysianfieldsonline.com), an award-winning store in Sarasota, Fla. Send your retail questions to kim@retailinginsight.com.