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PayPal Micropayments: A Step in the Right Direction

Paypal quietly launched it’s PayPal Micropayments service level this week, and it’s definitely a step in the right direction.  It’s a service that has been in testing and research for quite some time, but it’s nice to see it finally launched publicly.

Here is the new PayPal Micropayments site, which explains the terms.

For those of you unfamiliar with PayPal economics, PayPal charges a fixed fee and a variable rate on every transaction for premium customers.  A premium customer, by the way, is basically anyone who wants to receive more than $500 a month and/or accept credit cards.

The payment scheme is similar to the credit card companies, although of course PayPal charges the same fee for bank & debit payments too.  They even charge the fee on PayPal balance purchases.  There is a reason why PayPal is a phenomenal business in its current form.

The problem is that for low cost items, the PayPal fixed fee can be expensive.  The fees for a basic premium account are:

$0.30 + 2.9% of the transaction.

So, if you are selling a $100 item, your fees would come to:

$0.30 + $2.90 = $3.20, or 3.2% of the transaction.

Not a huge fee, but certainly a significant line item for normally thin retail margins.

Now look at the cost for a $5 item:

$0.30 + $0.145 = $0.45 (rounded), or 9% of the transaction.

Wow.  9% for payment processing.  Hard to build a great business there.

The micropayments service offering fixes this, by lowering the fixed fee, and raising the variable fee.  The new fee structure is:

$0.05 + 5% of the transaction.

So, that same $5 payment now costs:

$0.05 + $0.25 = $0.30, or 6% of the transaction.

6% is still high, but much, much better than the old fees.

Of course, given the scalability & cost issues with PayPal infrastructure, the launch is typically limited in terms of implementation:

  • You can’t really find this on the site, you have to go to the magic micro-site to sign up.
  • You have to sign up for this fee structure separately.  You can have the micropayment structure, or the normal structure, not both on a single account.
  • You have to wait 2 days for the fee structure to take effect.

This means that as an e-commerce seller, you have to keep two accounts open – one for your items over $12, and one for the rest of what you sell.  It also means you have to juggle the fact that PayPal doesn’t like to see two accounts linked to the same bank account, credit card, or email address.

Still, it was fairly trivial for me to set up a new email address on my personal domain, and get the new account.  I’ll start using it immediately on Media items, like used DVDs, that tend to get below $10 prices.

If I was in the eBay selling tool business, I would definitely build in a feature to automatically assign the right PayPal account to listings based on the fixed price or expected final value of an auction.  It probably wouldn’t take more than a day or two to implement.  An eBay seller with $100,000 GMV per year, with 50% of items below $10 could likely save thousands of dollars with this technique – that’s margin that is worth taking.

I’m not sure this fee structure will get PayPal into the true micropayments arena.  If they want to be collecting payments under $1, they will really need a fee structure that operates on the aggregate – grouping together charges like they do for iTunes to minimize charges.  Still, I’m glad to see them make at least this small step forward.  It must not have been easy to face the potential cannibalization for existing sellers who are using PayPal today on eBay for under $10 items and who will move to this payment structure.

What would be great is a true wrap account from PayPal that would mix together a true micro-payment pricing (sub-$1), low price item band (sub-$10), and regular merchant fees, with PayPal handling all the aggregation and management to deliver payments for a broad product line at a fixed rate based on monthly volume.

Still, I’m sure there are a few people at PayPal who slaved over this recently, and I do want to say to them thank you for shipping it.  I’m hoping this will help make selling lower price items viable again for me.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. tj #

    Lets call a spade a spade this is garbage, what is so difficult for Paypal to make a real tier % system ???
    all this micro payment account required not a standard Paypal account etc etc is just pure stupidity & more smoke & mirrors.

    Instead of playing catch up with Google checkout why not sort out the REAL problem for eBay sellers CHARGEBACKS

    October 22, 2008
  2. TJ,

    There are real technical reasons why it would likely be expensive for PayPal to jump in and integrate this into their primary account system. They could do it, of course, and they should do it, but I’m happy they at least publicly launched it.

    I’m sure the separate account thing also helps the optics around the potential cannibalization in the long term. This way, only the 2% who really care about saving the $ will invest the time to do this.

    That’s why I think it’s a great selling tool feature – you could make this automatic for people and save them significant dollars.

    In fact, I’d likely tell sellers that they could use this feature free for the first year, and just take a commission on the dollars saved.

    Do you really think PayPal is playing catchup with Google Checkout at this point? I haven’t heard a lot of noise about that battle in the past 12 months.

    Adam

    October 23, 2008

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