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It costs Noco Express Shops about 5 cents a gallon each time customers pull up to the pump and pay for their gas with a credit or debit card.

That's 25 percent more than Noco paid to process electronic transactions last year.

"With your normal markup, if someone uses a credit card, it could drag your price down below your cost," said Henry E. Bays, general manager.

Last year, Noco paid 1.5 percent of the sale plus 18 cents. Today, it pays 1.635 percent plus 18 cents.

And 40 percent of customers pay for gas with credit or debit, according to industry averages.

"Fees are a tremendous burden to retailers at the moment," Bays said. "As more and more people use debit and credit cards, it has a big effect."

In 1999, cash and checks accounted for nearly 60 percent of payments to stores. Today, they account for 47 percent of transactions, according to the American Bankers Association.

At the same time, the popularity of plastic -- especially debit cards -- has been rising.

Consumers made 31 percent of their payments last year using a debit card. Debit cards are even more popular than credit cards, which account for 21 percent of transaction, according to the association.

While the volume of credit and debit transactions is rising, the cost for processing those payments is also increasing. Some retailers believe the opposite should happen.

"In any market-based system, the price should fall as the volume rises," said Jennifer Hatcher of the Food Marketing Institute of Washington, D.C., a trade organization representing 26,000 food retailers that is lobbying Congress to reduce fees. "That's why we think this is not a market-based system. Clearly, it's a monopoly with rates set by Visa and MasterCard."

Visa points out that in October 2003 it reduced fees by 24 percent for credit cards used for small-ticket transactions, those under $15. It reduced by 32 percent the cost of small-ticket debit cards transactions. MasterCard made similar changes.

The Food Marketing Institute says that while Visa and MasterCard reduced costs for some transactions, they increased the cost for others. What Visa and MasterCard charge merchants depends not only on the size of the transaction but what kind of business they operate. Supermarkets, gas stations, Internet retailers and brick-and-mortar stores are all charged different rates.

In January, Visa raised overall debit rates by 18 percent and in April raised overall credit card fees by 2 percent. MasterCard did not provide similar information.

Merchants did see a temporary decrease in debit card fees as a result of a lawsuit they won against Visa and MasterCard. As of last Jan. 1, merchants that accept Visa or MasterCard credit cards could reject Visa and MasterCard debit cards, which at the time were more expensive to accept.

Part of the reason that higher volume has not translated into lower fees is that consumers are demanding that banks and financial institutions give them more rewards for using a credit or debit card. The fees charged to merchants help pay for cash back, airline tickets and other rewards.

"Interchange fees are completely set based on marketplace dynamics," said Rosetta Jones of Visa. "Consumers are demanding more reward-based cards. In general, thats good for merchants. It increases traffic in merchant locations and speeds up lines. There's certainly a cost to that that has to be balanced between the banks, merchants and consumers."

And retailers such as Dash's Market in Amherst feel it is bearing more than its fair share of the burden.

Last year, Dash's paid 1.34 percent of the purchase price plus a flat rate of 16 cents when it accepted a credit card. Today, it pays 1.64 percent and 19 cents.

That's driven up transactions costs to 0.5 percent of sales. Grocery stores operate on slim profit margins of usually 1 percent or 1.5 percent and make their money through volume.

"Banks encourage customers to use the cards for the rewards but those rewards don't come back to us in any way," said Mark Mahoney, operations manager. "Whether its airline miles or a dinner certification, that's at our expense. And you can't deny taking credit cards because so many people use them."