What US retailers can learn from ‘cashless lifestyle’ in China

This story was originally published in Internet Retailer.

By Alipay North America President Souheil Badran

Chinese consumers have been early adopters of the cashless lifestyle using mobile payment platforms for everything from shopping and renting bikes to paying utility bills and even hospital bills. China spent an estimated $5.5 trillion through mobile payment platforms last year alone—roughly 50 times the amount in the U.S. according to the Financial Times.

These mobile payment-savvy Chinese consumers are visiting North America in droves, and the number is growing. This year, the number of Chinese travelers in the U.S. is expected to grow to four million, bringing with them not only enthusiasm for shopping for items they otherwise wouldn’t be able to find in China, but different payment expectations birthed through technology and built to meet cultural norms that are vastly different than those in the U.S.

For example, many Chinese consumers have only operated in a mobile world, and without the traditional credit cards. Unlike the West, in which consumers evolved from physical stores to PCs to laptops to smartphones, many Chinese consumers went straight to the smartphone and have seldom engaged directly with a website. Further, Chinese consumers have become accustomed to scanning QR codes for everything from wedding gifts, where a bridesmaid wears a unique QR code around her neck to facilitate payments from guests during a wedding, to donations to a street musician or panhandlers who post a unique QR code passers-by can scan to make donations.

To meet the needs of Chinese consumers coming to buy in the U.S., it’s helpful for retailers and brands to understand the ways that Chinese consumers shop and how their cashless lifestyle at home may impact expectations while they are abroad.

Entire cities in China are making moves to embrace cashless living.

Ant Financial recently announced Cashless Cities Week, which is taking place August 1st to 8th in China, encouraging the whole nation to go cashless. To date, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Tianjin, Fuzhou and Guiyang—five cities with an aggregate of 40 million population—have signed up, with more cities expected to join.

Universities are moving to “cash-free” campuses.

In Tianjin, a city 78 miles away from Beijing, the concept of “cash-free campuses” has allowed the city’s 700,000 college students to pay their tuition and other campus expenses with their mobile phones.

Payments apps can unlock experiences.

In China, many times, experiences often start with mobile payment. For example, a Chinese consumer staying at a hotel might simply scan a unique QR code in a room they have rented using the payments app on their phone, unlocking everything from temperature control, lighting or room service which can be controlled with their phone.

Chinese consumers are not paying with credit.

While Chinese consumers are moving toward a cashless lifestyle — and society — in a big way, borrowing money from a credit card company or another lender goes against the cultural grain. Until mobile payments caught on, Chinese consumers had paid with large amount of cash for everything from houses to cars and beyond. For many, mobile payments are truly facilitating cash-free living.

Chinese mobile payment players have begun to enter the U.S. in the last year, connecting these travelers with the experiential ecosystem they’ve become accustomed to at home. Chinese consumers can now use their phones when traveling to not only make purchases at select retailers using their favorite app, but book hotels, call cabs, buy tickets and more, just like in China.

U.S. retailers that recognize the distinct differences in payment experiences can better meet the needs of these tech-savvy Chinese shoppers coming abroad to spend. Those that offer in-store payment solutions that are familiar to Chinese shoppers will provide a welcome payment experience that could not only incentivize purchases, but encourage loyalty that could result in future visits and even broaden awareness through word-of-mouth within this community. Further, as mobile payments slowly catch on in the U.S., these retailers will be better equipped to innovate faster and readily meet the changing needs of Chinese shoppers as the cashless lifestyle takes further hold in China and beyond.

Alipay, an online payment service introduced in 2004 by China’s Alibaba Group, claims 520 million users.