Alibaba and Tencent Push Digital Wallets

Customer making contactless payment through smartphone

No bank account, no credit card? No problem. Alibaba and Tencent have made payments via digital wallets mainstream in China, and now are looking to expand in global markets, as the following article explains.

China’s two largest technology companies are locked in a payment war — and it isn’t just about getting more Chinese consumers to use their digital wallet services.

In recent years, Alibaba and Tencent have taken their payment apps abroad for fresh growth, announcing billions of dollars in deals to partner with foreign payment networks, and acquiring stakes in local financial technology startups. Their ultimate goal: Convince shoppers worldwide — starting with Asia and eventually in the U.S. — to use digital wallets under their control for all sorts of purchases, paving the way for them to provide more lucrative offerings such as online loans, insurances and wealth management products.

Such a scenario is already a reality in China. Alipay, developed by e-commerce giant Alibaba’s affiliate Ant Financial, already boasts 520 million users, while Tencent’s TenPay counts 400 million. Both are fast replacing cash and bank cards to become the payment of choice in the world’s most populous country.

Users can also obtain loans, buy money-market funds, and invest in a myriad of wealth management products in these two apps, which collectively control more than 90% of China’s $5.5 trillion mobile payment market, according to Beijing-based consultancy iResearch.

Now, the companies have started their overseas expansion by following China’s digital savvy shoppers, the root of their success at home. Both chose to first introduce their payment apps in places such as Japan, Thailand and South Korea, “following the natural flow of Chinese tourists,” said Paul Schulte, founder of Hong Kong-based consultancy Schulte Research.

Retailers are embracing the move, hoping Alipay and TenPay will help them become more appealing to Chinese visitors — and their wallets. Chinese tourists’ overseas spending reached a record $261 billion last year, according to the World Tourism Organization.

Both Alibaba and Tencent benefit by serving a market with many unbanked customers as well as high smartphone ownership, which are ideal conditions for digital wallet payments. India meets these criteria as well and is a prime digital wallet market. Card networks and banks in the U.S. have developed digital wallets of their own, but consumer adoption is still relatively low, as credit, debit cards, and cash still command the vast majority of payment transactions. However, many U.S. merchants see the benefits of digital wallets and have included them on their mobile apps. Now it’s up to customers to use them.

Overview by Raymond Pucci, Associate Director, Research Services at Mercator Advisory Group

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