Apple is looking to get over its sales woes in China but offering prospective customers interest-free financing with a little help from Alibaba.
Apple’s China website now offers financing packages for iPhones that include zero percent interest packages provided in association with several banks and Huabei, a consumer credit company operated by Alibaba’s Ant Financial unit, as first noted by Reuters.
On its China website, Apple is promoting the new scheme, under which customers can pay 271 yuan ($40.31) each month to purchase an iPhone XR, and 362 yuan each month for an iPhone XS. Customers trading in old models can get cheaper installments.
Users buying products worth a minimum of 4,000 yuan worth from Apple would qualify for interest-free financing that can be paid over three, six, nine, 12 or 24 months, the website shows.
Apple is also offering discounts for customers who trade in devices from the likes of Huawei, Xiaomi and others.
The deals are an interesting development that comes just weeks after Apple cut revenue guidance for its upcoming Q1 earnings. The firm trimmed its revenue from the $89 billion-$93 billion range to $84 billion on account of unexpected “economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China.”
Offering attractive packages may convince some consumers to buy an iPhone, but there’s a lingering sense that Apple’s current design isn’t sparking interest from Chinese consumers. Traditionally, it has seen a sales uptick around the launch of iPhones that offer a fresh design and the current iPhone XR, XS and XS Max line-up bears a strong resemblance to the one-year-old iPhone X.
The first quarter of a new product launch results in a sales spike in China, but Q2 sales — the quarter after the launch — are where devices can underwhelm.
It’ll be interesting to see if Apple offers similar financing in India, where it saw sales drop by 40 percent in 2018 according to The Wall Street Journal. Apple’s market share, which has never been significant, is said to have halved from two percent to one percent over the year.
Finance is a huge issue for consumers in India, where aggressively priced by capable phones from Chinese companies like Xiaomi or OnePlus dominate the market in terms of sales volume. With the iPhone costing multiples more than top Android phones, flexible financing could help unlock more sales in India.
China, however, has long been a key revenue market for Apple so it figures that this strategy is happening there first.
Ecommerce giant Alibaba is continuing its push into the world of youth culture after it scooped up an 8 percent stake in anime streaming and game publishing company Bilibili.
According to a securities filing on Thursday, Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace has acquired about 24 million shares in Bilibili, the Shanghai-based firm that has captured 93 million monthly users from hosting licensed anime titles, video games and user-generated content.
The financial gesture is hot on the heels of a partnership announced in December that saw the pair working to monetize Bilibili’s content assets. For one, Alibaba can help Bilibili creators sell merchandise like cosplay costumes and anime toys through Taobao’s online bazaar. Bilibili itself owns an e-store, but Taobao’s command of 700 million monthly users dwarfs its reach.
“The partnership is great news for ACG content creators,” a Shanghai-based merchant that sells Lolita costumes on Taobao told TechCrunch, referring to the acrynom for “anime, comic and games.” The owner sells through both Taobao and Bilibili, though most sales have come from Taobao.
“We can now leverage Taobao’s gigantic platform and seasoned ecommerce operating capabilities to further help our content creators realize and improve their commercial values, thereby building a more virtuous content community and commercialization-focused ecosystem,” says Bilibili chief executive and chairman Chen Rui in a statement.
Screenshot: Taobao has a dedicated channel for anime, comic and gaming (ACG) items.
What Alibaba gets in return is access to China’s Generation Z. Bilibili claims that 82 percent of its users were born between 1990 and 2009. In a savvy move, Alibaba hooked up its food delivery unit Ele.me with Bilibili in December to tap a demographic of anime-watching and game-playing young people reliant on delivered meals.
“Over 1.6 million content creators, including anime, comic and games (ACG) experts, were actively supporting the Taobao app and helping brands on our platform engage with consumers,” said Fan Jiang, vice president of Alibaba and president of Taobao, back in December. “Through deep cooperation with intellectual property holders and content creators, Taobao has experienced the great potential of ACG.”
Tencent and Baidu’s iQiyi have also spent big bucks to beef up their respective anime offering, but Bilibili’s flourishing youth community gives it an edge over these deep-pocketed video-streaming heavyweights and to an extent makes it an investors’ darling. The eight-year-old company is notable for being one of the rare companies that count both Alibaba and Tencent — which compete on multiple fronts spanning ecommerce to cloud computing — as their investors. Other companies that won backings from the duo include China’s largest ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing.
Last October, social media and gaming juggernaut Tencent poured nearly $320 million into Bilibili in exchange for a 12.3 percent stake. While Alibaba helps drive revenues to Bilibili’s community of creators and potentially boost their loyalty to the site, Tencent could help it save on licensing fees for games and animes.
“Tencent and Bilibili are two of the major players in the animation industry. By working with Tencent, this will intensively expand our content offering and effectively decrease our content investment in the animation copyright procurement,” Chen of Bilibili said during the company’s Q3 earnings call.
“The agreement will enable us to leverage Tencent’s primary content, particularly in licensing, co-producing and investment in anime as well as publish Tencent’s large portfolio of high-quality mobile games,” Bilibili’s chief financial officer Sam Fan added.
Ant Financial, the financial services behemoth affiliated with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, has made its first big move into Europe. It’s acquired London-headquartered payments company WorldFirst in a deal that sources tell us is valued at around $700 million.
(That price would also line up with multiple reports from December claiming the two were in talks for an acquisition of around £550 million, or $717 million at current exchange rates.)
This isn’t your average multi-hundred million dollar acquisition. The deal was confirmed by WorldFirst in a note to customers while Alibaba, which curiously didn’t put out an official press release, acknowledged the acquisition to us through a spokesperson.
Yet despite a relatively under-the-radar outing, the deal has potentially significant consequences. It not only underscores the strong market connections between China and Europe, but also the margin (and thus strategic) pressures that many smaller remittance companies are under in the wake of larger companies like Amazon building its own money-moving services, as well as competition from local players in Asia.
One of a number of globally active money remittance services, 15-year-old WorldFirst lets businesses and consumers move money between countries at prices that are lower than regular banks.
The company claims to have transferred over £70 billion ($90 billion) for customers since 2004, with more than one million transfers made each year. WorldFirst is a player in the competitive remittance market, in which migrant workers send money home to family, who can make transfers online or in person at WorldFirst outlets.
Ant Financial is best known for its Alipay service, which is China’s dominant mobile payment app with over 550 million registered users. Alibaba owns one-third of Ant, which is valued at as much as $150 billion, and it has been pushing to expand its empire outside of China and beyond Asia Pacific, too.
“Alipay and WorldFirst’s capabilities and international footprints are highly complementary,” WorldFirst co-founder and chief executive Jonathan Quin wrote in an internal memo obtained by TechCrunch.
According to Quin, WorldFirst will retain its brand and become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ant Financial. Many merchants in the UK already accept Alipay, which has expanded to cater for Chinese tourists spending money overseas.
“The tie-up will add WorldFirst’s international online payments and virtual account products to Alipay’s range of technology solutions,” an Ant Financial spokesperson told TechCrunch without disclosing the size of the buyout.
WorldFirst has been financed by private equity investors and, as a private company, it keeps its financial details closely held, but in August 2018 it noted that it had transferred more than $95 billion for some 160,000 customers — businesses and individuals included. A source told us its GMV was around $10 billion a year.
But sources noted that it was under pressure of its own that would have made securing a deal with Ant even more of a priority.
“That whole sector of payments from the West to China sellers for e-commerce is under massive margin pressure from Amazon going direct with its own service, plus new China based entrants PingPong, LianLian and Airwallex,” one executive very close to the remittance space told us. “WorldFirst had recently seen low to declining growth because of this.” Another source said that it had been shopping itself around.
(The Amazon reference is related to Amazon PayCode, a new service it has built with Western Union to let people in markets where Amazon has not launched a local site to pay for goods in local currencies on its platform. The deal was first announced in October last year, and has seen the two companies offering payment alternatives in places like Thailand and Kenya to remove the need to transfer payments in other ways, via Alipay or whatever transfer service a seller or buyer might use.)
The acquisition gives Ant Financial a massive international boost, and for the first time a presence in Europe, but it comes amid some stumbles for the company in its other attempts to expand internationally.
While WorldFirst is based out of the UK, the company last year made a key move to expand its US operations when it was announced in August that it would acquire the retail money transfer business of San Francisco-based startup Wyre, which had built the network on blockchain technology but was selling it to focus on the other side of its business, providing currency exchange APIs to larger B2B customers.
It looked like all systems go for WorldFirst to move deeper in the US after that. But then, the company abruptly announced on February 20 that it planned to close the U.S-based business. The move may have been made to prevent a repeat of that scuppered MoneyGram acquisition.
WorldFirst is closing its business in the U.S. in a move widely seen as a precursor to its acquisition by Ant Financial
Outside of the U.S. and China, Ant Financial has aggressively expanded its presence in Asia through a series of investment deals that have seen it put $200 million into Kakao Pay in Korea, and find similar deals in Southeast Asia. The overall strategy appears to be to replicate the success of Alipay in China, where it offers mobile payments and digital financial services that cover loans, banking and wealth management.
China’s payments heavyweights have been following tourists abroad as their home market gets crowded. Ant Financial, Alibaba’s financial affiliate with a said valuation of $100 billion, now sees its virtual wallet Alipay handling transactions at 3,000 Walgreens stores in the U.S. and is eyeing to reach a roster of 7,000 locations by April.
The alliance will make it breezier for Chinese tourists eager to pick up vitamin supplements and cosmetics from the pharmacy giant, doing away the hassle of carrying cash around. There’s also an economic incentive as Alipay and its payments peers typically charge lower foreign transaction fees than credit card firms.
Walgreens products are already available to Chinese shoppers through Alibaba’s Tmall online marketplace, which connects customers to brands. It competes with JD.com to bring high-quality overseas products to the country’s increasingly demanding consumers.
According to a Nielsen report released last year, more than 90 percent Chinese tourists said they would use mobile payment overseas if given the option. Digital payments have become a norm in China’s urban centers and top policymakers are planning to replicate that cashless ubiquity among rural villagers by 2020, announced a set of new guidelines this week.
Ant Financial is continuing its aggression in North America despite a major fiasco last year when the U.S. government killed its $1.2 billion plan to buy money transfer firm MoneyGram, a deal that could boost Ant’s global remittance capability. Within the American borders, Ant has tapped into its partners’ retail networks. By March last year, Alipay was accepting money across 35,000 merchants through its tie-up with local payments processor First Data.
Alipay is currently available at 3,000 Walgreens stores in the U.S. / Photo: Ant Financial
Digital payments are especially popular with first-time outbound tourists, many of whom hail from smaller Chinese cities and may not own international credit cards. According to a recent report published by Ant, the number of people from third-and-fourth-tier cities who used Alipay abroad was up 230 percent during this past Lunar New Year.
“This really highlights how mobile payment is taking root in China’s outbound tourism market,” said Janice Chen, head of the business operation for Alipay’s cross-border unit. Overseas usage from travellers born between 1960 and 1979 similarly saw robust growth last week.
Alipay’s big push into North American also includes its foray into Canada. In one instance, diners in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton — destinations that draw a lot of Chinese tourist and students — can now use Alipay to order food and skip restaurant lines. The setup comes from a deal between Ant Financial and Canadian food startup ClickDishes.
Alipay’s archrival WeChat Pay has also flexed its muscles overseas. To chase after Chinese tourists, the Tencent-owned wallet recently pushed into Japan through a partnership with chat app Line. In Hong Kong and Malaysia, WeChat has attempted to get a slice of the indigenous payments market by running localized versions of the wallet and luring users with money. During Lunar New Year, WeChat Pay shelled out millions of digital hongbao — red packets filled with cash traditionally handed out during the festive period — to users in these two regions.
Payment giant PayPal has closed its office in Malaysia as part of a restructuring of its customer support teams.
The office, located in capital city Kuala Lumpur, was home to a team of customer service agents that catered to PayPal users across Asian region and beyond. Now, its responsibility will be assumed by other offices, which include locations in the Philippines, China and India.
A PayPal spokesperson explained to TechCrunch that the move is aimed at consolidating a range of different employees at PayPal offices to help blend a range of employees under the same roof. The closure of the office doesn’t impact the PayPal service in Malaysia.
PayPal confirmed the office will close this year in a statement. The company emphasized its efforts to transition affected staff into new jobs both inside PayPal and with other companies:
We have made the difficult decision to close PayPal’s Operations Centre in Malaysia by the end of this year. The work currently being delivered at our Operations Centre in Malaysia will gradually move to other locations. This internal reorganization does not affect our customers in Malaysia, who can continue to use our products and services as normal.
We regularly review our global site structure and staffing to ensure the support and services we provide at each site best meet the evolving demands of our customers. Our Operations Centre in Malaysia has done a remarkable job serving our customers since the site opened in 2011. However, this decision was made to align our investment in sites that are better equipped to support the future needs of our customers and our company.
Our priority now is to do everything we can to set up our employees for future success and we are fully committed to helping them as they transition to the next step in their careers. As well as offering comprehensive separation packages, we have built an on-site careers center to promote job opportunities and provide immediate assistance to employees.
PayPal was the first company to pioneer digital payments but it has fallen behind in Asia and other emerging markets as mobile payment players and messaging apps have stepped up.
WeChat, which offers integrated QR code payments, dominates China, while WhatsApp is experimenting with payments in India, its largest market with 200 million active users, in a move that may well expand to other markets including Southeast Asia, where it is widely used. Other challengers with digital payments include Line, which offers payments in Japan, Taiwan and Thailand, and Alibaba’s Ant Financial, a major player in China that is making aggressive moves in Korea and Southeast Asia.