Despite the economic downturn, small-business credit cards remain a growth opportunity, according to Aite Group.

The Boston market research company said a survey it conducted in July concluded that the 20 million small U.S. businesses spend $4.8 trillion a year, or 23.8% of all commercial spending, but credit cards account for only about 4% of business-to-business transactions among small companies

Checks account for about 65% of small-business transactions, while cash and other types of payments account for 31% of transactions. Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. together account for an estimated 36% of small-business credit card spending, while American Express Co. accounts for 38% and other banks, including regional and community institutions and credit unions, account for the remaining 26% share, Aite said.

Seventy-two percent of small-business owners said credit cards are "easier and more secure" than cash or checks, while 58% said they prefer credit cards to other instruments for paying bills.

About 31% of respondents said they routinely use credit cards to make online purchases, and 14% said they use credit cards instead of other payment instruments to accumulate rewards points. Only 9% said they routinely use credit cards to defer payments.

Aite surveyed 283 businesses with revenue of less than $10 million. It released the findings this week.

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