Much has been made in recent weeks of the new ability merchants have to assess a surcharge when customers pay with a credit card.

Papadimitriou outlines ways to help retailers take advantage of the new rules without angering their customers. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Those who operate in the retail space have no doubt been inundated with questions about whether or not they plan to take advantage of this new court-given right and what kind of scuttlebutt they are hearing from the rest of the business community. However, at this stage, it seems there are more questions than answers.

For example, is it in a small business owner’s best interest to levy credit card usage fees? How is the national business community reacting to this new environment? Why does it take a class-action settlement to give retailers the right to charge what they want?

Before we shed light on those issues, a bit of background is necessary.

Working toward a more competitive marketplace

There have been a number of attempts over the years to create a competitive payments landscape in which financial institutions are compelled to duke it out for merchant business, rather than allowing credit care firms to basically name their price on interchange fees.

The Durbin Amendment – the most notable of these efforts – unfortunately didn’t do much, as it focused on price control rather than competition. The merchants eventually decided to take things into their own hands, filing a class-action lawsuit against Visa, MasterCard and other major banks. They reached an $8.55 billion settlement in July.

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A monetary reward wasn’t the only thing merchants gained via that settlement. They also negotiated the right to pass payment processing costs onto consumers in the form of credit card surcharges.

Big victory, right? Yes and no.

Credit card surcharges: Big bark, little bite?

The possibility of a 4 percent credit card tax, if you will, obviously seems daunting for consumers and like a major boon for small business. But it turns out that conflicting laws and card network policies reduce the threat considerably.

For starters, the following states prohibit charging more for credit card transactions: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maine; Massachusetts; New York; Oklahoma and Texas.

Those states collectively account for 40 percent of the U.S. population. Utah, Missouri, Illinois, Hawaii, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia are also considering similar bans.

If they’re successful, 55.5 percent of the country will be safe from paying extra to use plastic. The fact that Visa and MasterCard rules also prohibit retailers from adopting different payment policies in different store locations means that major nationwide chains won’t be able to apply surcharges, further limiting the number of consumers at risk.

Then there’s American Express. The aforementioned settlement prohibits merchants for discriminating across card networks, and American Express rules dictate that all forms of payment must be treated the same. So, if a merchant who accepts Amex wants to apply a surcharge on Visa/MasterCard credit card transactions, they’d have to do the same for debit card transactions.

Since merchants want to promote the use of debit cards given their favorable swipe fees, it’s unlikely that the millions who accept American Express will levy credit card usage fees.

Merchant adoption: A good or bad idea?

The payment industry’s complicated dynamics certainly dampen the potential impact of credit card surcharges, but they won’t universally prevent merchants from experimenting with them. Retail experts anticipate that small local businesses in particular will be tempted to try out credit card fees.

“I think it matters to them more than it probably does larger retailers – that extra 2 percent or 3 percent that goes to Visa or MasterCard that could be in their till,” said Kit Yarrow, who chairs Golden Gate University’s Department of Psychology. “I don’t think it would be a smart move on their part, but they might be tempted.”

Why? Not only are we becoming more reliant on plastic as a society, but consumers have so many options these days that if one particular merchant decides to charge more for plastic, we can shop elsewhere.

“The plastic is there,” said Eugene Fram, a marketing professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. “If I can’t use plastic in your place without a surcharge I’ll just simply go to someplace else or I’ll create a fuss.”

The bottom line

At the end of the day, small business owners are consumers too, and from that perspective, they can be thankful the new credit card surcharge rules won’t amount to much. From a business standpoint, they can also be thankful that there is indeed a way to offset the cost of credit card processing without alienating customers: Raise prices across the board and then offer discounts to people who pay in cash.

If you play this right, consumers aren’t likely to notice, and instead of being the bad guy handing down fines, you’ll be able to play the role of the generous benefactor.

Odysseas Papadimitriou is the chief executive of Washington-based financial services start-ups and .