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March 21, 2017

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Cash? Who needs it? We have digital wallets

CASH and credit cards are rapidly become things of the past. It won’t be long before all payments we make will be done via smartphones, thanks to innovations in the mobile payment sector and new strategies from retailers.

A recently unveiled digital feature on Tencent’s popular social networking application WeChat offers another twist in the campaign to make us more reliant on phones in our daily lives.

Tencent’s “Say it with Starbucks” campaign, launched early February in the WeChat Wallet, enables users to purchase a Starbucks beverage or digital gift card to send to friends or family.

Belinda Wong, chief executive of Starbucks China, said the gift cards are widely used around the world and the company hopes to become the most popular digital gift brand in China.

Gift giving is very popular among the Chinese, and WeChat offers a convenient platform because of its 846 million user base and its status as a daily feature in so many lives.

The Starbucks promotion allows users to purchase coffee coupons or gift cards and gives them the option of adding text, picture or video messages for friends. More than 2,500 Starbucks stores in China already accept payment through WeChat.

Shanghai white-collar worker Gong Wen said she spent 35 yuan (US$5.1) online for a Starbucks coffee coupon for a friend shortly after the service went live.

“It’s fairly easy to use, for a very small amount of money,” she said. “I can send greetings with simple procedures instead of actually having to visit a coffee outlet.”

Tencent said its gift service will gradually be expanded to other retailers.

Sending gift cards or coffee coupons through WeChat is an extension of digitized “red packets” that follow from the personal custom of giving money in red envelopes for the Lunar New Year.

The sheer convenience of WeChat makes it a natural choice when people want to send greetings to friends or acquaintances, according to foodservice analyst Summer Chen at market research firm Mintel.

On a recent visit to three Starbucks stores on Nanjing Road W during the lunch break, I observed more than half of consumers using WeChat to pay their bills, with about a quarter still using cash, plastic cards or Apple Pay.

Natural shift

Alibaba’s payment affiliate Alipay has dominated the mobile payment scene, with a more than 70 percent market share, compared with WeChat’s single-digit inroads just three years ago. But WeChat seems to be gaining ground fast, offering users a single app for so many of their digital activities.

Both the amount and size of third party payment handled by domestic non-financial institutions doubled in the past year, reaching 8.16 trillion times and 99.3 trillion yuan, according to the Payment and Clearing Association of China.

Domestic consultancy iResearch Inc expects full year transaction size of mobile payment to be 38.5 trillion yuan in 2016, adding more than two times from a year ago.

“Consumers use both WeChat and Alipay, but they have different perceptions about each platform,” said Milan Jiang, chief executive officer at mobile marketing agency VeryStar.

Alipay offers a clear-cut money-related solution, while WeChat slots comfortably into the broader realm of personal communications.

VeryStar promotes brands and services through both WeChat and Alipay on behalf of domestic and foreign brands. Jiang told Shanghai Daily that Alipay works well in promotions directly linked to transactional activities, while the social communication function of WeChat offers more emotional connections.

“It’s a smart move,” said Sherry Chen, researcher at Kantar Media CIC. “The collaboration between digital online platforms and offline brands is conducive to developing user paying habits and expanding purchasing and consumption occasions.”

“Alipay has been pushing into more interactive features for friends to connect, but most people still considered it merely a payment tool,” Jiang said. “After all, we don’t want to chat with friends via an ATM machine.”

Mark Bowling, head of strategy at PHD China, a division of Omnicom Media Group, said the dominance of digital platforms in daily life means that brands have to participate to maintain market presence.

KFC China was among the quick learners. In less than a year, it accumulated more than 50 million members through campaigns on both Alipay and WeChat, after having made both payment options available in all its China outlets.

KFC China’s membership system makes it easier for the company to communicate with customers making payments through smartphones. The company said it is keeping an open mind toward all new technologies in the field.

The trick is to keep the interest of sometimes fickle customers in a digital world that can change their perceptions in short order.


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