Merchant Services in Central IL: The Early Years!

manual imprinterI’ve been providing merchant services to Central IL businesses since 1996, four years before I became a founder and President of Cornerstone Business Solutions.  As I look forward and see the next generation of payment solutions on the horizon, I can’t help but look back and reminisce over all the changes I’ve witnessed over the past few decades.

My first introduction to credit card processing was  thirty years ago when I was a stock boy at the local Hornsby’s retail store (similar to a K-Mart) in Pontiac, IL.  I remember during busy times, dropping a mop and racing to the register to help bag items for the cashiers.  I also remember that I wasn’t running because I was such an enthusiastic worker, but so that I can beat the other stock boys to bag for the prettiest cashier.  On those occasions when I was too slow and ended up bagging for an older cashier, I would notice that occasionally customers would use a credit card for large purchases, such as a commodore 64.  It was such a slow process in those days and the other customers in line would be so annoyed.  All the clerks were issued a weekly updated sheet with all the invalid credit card numbers.  The checker actually had to look through several sheets of these numbers to see if the card was on the list.  Later, I remember it being called in to a number from a phone at the register.  Then, if the card wasn’t on the ‘bad’ list, a manual imprint of the card was taken, hand filled out and signed by the customer.  The signed slip then went in the drawer to be turned into the bank later in the day, much like a check.  It’s no wonder that the introduction of the electronic credit card terminal utilizing automatic authorization and transfer was such a success for the industry.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t a part of helping business make that transition to electronic processing.  By the time I began in merchant services in 1996 as a payment card specialist, most existing businesses already had a terminal and it was usually a Zon Jr, or T330 VeriFone device and a separate P250 printer.  Occasionally, you’ll still see some of the T330 devices, but I’m hunting them down to hurry their extinction!  My role in those early days was to help existing central Illinois businesses lower their credit card processing costs and help new business in Bloomington, Normal and Peoria accept credit cards.

Not all businesses accepted credit cards in those days.  Some businesses were hard to convince that people would actually use a credit card in their store, if you can believe it.  The biggest objection I would get from some of the smaller businesses that had been around awhile is that no one had ever asked them to take a credit card before.  They insisted that their customers only wanted to use cash or checks.  Sadly, many of those businesses didn’t last long in the new electronic age.  Other businesses were able to see the trend and adapted.  One of my earliest customers from 1996, Hanson’s Cleaners, began to use credit cards then and continues to prosper, doing a very large volume of their business with electronic payments.

In those days, most businesses that already accepted credit cards in central Illinois got set up through their bank.  I don’t think I was very popular with the local banks or the national chain banks then.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen customers that felt like their trust was taken advantage of when it was revealed how much they were being overcharged.  The banks were then letting the customers use a cheap T330 terminal at no charge, but were charging a rate over 4% of the volume usually.  Although I would lease a terminal for about $50 a month, my rate would be about 1.69%.  There were so many businesses that I saved several hundred dollars every month on credit card processing fees.  I don’t know if it was me that had an impact, but although most banks still have some sort of merchant services program, they are no longer the premiere provider of that service as most businesses go directly to a specialized payment provider like myself for the best rate and expertise.  In fact, many of the local financial institutions now utilize me for their customer’s credit card processing to provide the best in service and rates for their customers.

Back then, all of the merchant payment specialists were working with leasing companies to lease equipment to merchants.  It was where the profit was derived for the merchant level salesperson to get paid.  There were little or no residuals paid.  Even though the merchant was paying a pretty steep mark up for the terminals, the processing rate was so much lower that the overall solution made sense at the time.  Since then, the market has shifted and I’m so glad that I no longer utilize leasing companies.  Although I didn’t realize at the time, I later realized that many of the leasing company’s practices do not align well with my personal values.  Many of my competitors still use leasing companies to make a hefty profit on the sales of machines, and I think it’s ironic that among them are the merchant services divisions of many larger local banks!

These are my best recollections of my personal exposure to the payment processing field that has been such a big part of my life over the years.  Even in my first several years, there were changes happening in the industry, but one thing that still hasn’t changed is my affinity for the small and medium-sized business owner and my desire to assist them in a critical function for their business.

As a matter of curiosity, when was the last time you saw a manual imprinter, aka knucklebuster used at a business?




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  1. Robert, isn’t the speed of change with technology amazing? Methods of transactions sure have changed, but finding a merchant a business can trust hasn’t. It’s good to know there are people like you out there always working hard to help the business owner adapt and succeed. Great history lesson!


  1. […] detailing my history in the evolution of merchant services in Bloomington Normal Illinois in a previous post.  Credit card processing was definitely a mature market in central Illinois when we opened our […]

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