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Digital wallet means buying a car is only a few taps away

Hongkongers are catching up with mainland Chinese at the rate at which they embrace e-wallets

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 9:32am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 12:31pm

Cash has become an endangered species in China, where everything from a luxury purchase to a kindly donation may be transacted via mobile payment.

But in Hong Kong, where consumers have enjoyed cashless payment since the early 1990s – courtesy of the Octopus card – the take-up of e-wallets is significantly lower.

Based on its consumer insights, global measurement and data analytics company Nielsen believes there are three key reasons why.

Firstly, says Tommy Hong, Nielsen China vice-president, there’s competition in Hong Kong from more developed payment methods, such as credit cards.

“For consumers in mainland China, cash was the main form of payment until just the last few years, giving digital wallets a huge opportunity to grow rapidly,” he explains.

Also, mainland consumers tend to be less concerned about privacy compared with those in mature markets, so they’re willing to try new payment technologies.

The greater the trust, the bigger the spend, Nielsen’s data suggests. Consumer behaviour around digital payments is “very different from what we saw 10 years ago,” Hong says, noting that, apart from routine daily needs, consumers have no issue purchasing furniture, big-ticket items, and in some cases even cars, with a digital wallet.

“Even international tourist locations like Dubai now accept Alipay,” he says. “With the further development of digital wallets and promotion from digital payment companies, mobile and digital payments will continue to emerge in more sales channels, allowing consumers to purchase anything from simple, everyday products to high-end luxury goods with the click of a mouse or scanning a mobile phone,” he says.

Supporting that trend is the Hurun Chinese Luxury Consumer Survey 2018, which finds that Alipay, the mobile payment arm of Ant Financial, an affiliate of Alibaba Group Holding, which is also the owner of the South China Morning Post, remained the number one preferred payment system among China’s super rich for the second straight year.

AlipayHK has more than 1 million users of its app in Hong Kong, and more than 20,000 merchants accepting it – from chains such as Mannings, SOGO and ParknShop, to fresh markets, restaurants and taxis. Six major telecom brands began supporting users’ in-app bill payment. “People not only use our e-wallet to pay for daily bills and food, but also to buy luxury brands, such as limited-edition bags and watches,” says Jennifer Tan, CEO of Alipay Payment Services (HK).

Hongkongers might have lagged behind Chinese mainlanders in their initial adoption of e-wallets, but they’re catching up fast. According to AlipayHK statistics, the transaction count from the fourth quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of this year increased by nearly 40 per cent.

Tencent Holdings’ WeChat Pay is also gaining traction in Hong Kong, beating even Apple Pay in the 2018 Hong Kong Retail Banking Satisfaction Study by JD Power, a global marketing information services provider.

When it comes to mobile wallets Hongkongers love WeChat Pay, but prefer using Apple Pay

According to AlipayHK, the city’s high penetration rate of mobile phones – an average of two phones per person – presents an opportunity to e-wallet providers.

“Nowadays, Hong Kong people typically don’t leave their homes without their mobile phones,” Tan says. “We want to take that a step further and make the mobile phone an all-in-one [e-payment] solution to handle their daily needs, as well as developing Hong Kong into a smart city.”

The company will continue its cooperation with restaurants, department stores, clothing stores, taxis and MTR stations. “We’re hoping that every product and service can be paid via our e-wallet,” Tan says.

Visa agrees that Hongkongers, who do love their plastic, will increasingly embrace digital wallets. The company is optimistic about the Visa-branded Dynamics Wallet Card, which incorporates multiple features and technologies – from the capacity to access multiple cards to a programmable on-card display that enables account information, such as alerts or coupons, to be sent to the cardholder via an embedded antenna.

“Already, Hong Kong registers the highest mobile contactless payment penetration in Asia,” says Chris Boncimino, Visa’s head of innovation and design for Asia-Pacific. “Increasingly, Visa sees digital payments as not being only about the plastic card, but a set of payment credentials that take your card details into other environments, like mobile devices and wearables.”

Boncimino can also see a day when there won’t be a need for any cash at all.

“Many of us are already living a less-cash life,” he said. “In Hong Kong, cash only makes up 23 per cent of total personal consumption expenditure. In many countries, the proportion of cash is even lower. As we see more demand for frictionless payment experiences from consumers in this region, that day might come sooner than we thought.”

And the next step up – paying in cryptocurrency – is looming on the horizon as well.

Already, bitcoin is accepted for mainstream as well as top-line purchases: such as a luxury chalet in the French Alps – advertised on Bitcoin Real Estate for either US$4.95 million “or BTC, ETH or will consider other cryptocurrency” – or a Rolex watch, for which JavyEstrella.com, a Los Angeles-based online retailer of luxury watches, now accepts bitcoin as a form of payment.

For the well-to-do who prefer to splash their cash discreetly, digital money could be the answer. The White Company, a “purveyor of fine art and luxury goods” in the cryptocurrency space, recently brokered the sale of a pricey artwork (for 12.3 BTC, equivalent to US$100,000) to a private Canadian citizen “who wishes to remain anonymous”.

Elizabeth White, the company’s CEO, says one of the main advantages of cryptocurrency is its anonymity. From artworks to luxury watches and high-end cars, says White, “if there is anything a client wants to purchase with bitcoin, we will be able to get it for them”.