Billionaire Jack Ma steps up battle with WeChat to win merchants

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Alipay, the mobile payment app owned by billionaire Jack Ma, is stepping up its competition with WeChat to get more of its 900 million users to tap expanded services in everything from real estate purchases to restaurant and cinema bookings.

Alipay is targeting 40 million merchants and services providers in China to use its mini programs – a lite app that sits on top of its interface and provides quick access to an array of services. The company has been experimenting with the initiative for three years and now has about 1.7 million such programs.

The move escalates the competition between Alipay and WeChat, the super app owned by Asia’s second largest company and Jack Ma’s rival billionaire Pony Ma. After seeing a surge in online demand during the Covid-19 virus outbreak, Alipay introduced incentives to encourage developers to create mini programs that help users cope with the impact.

“We’ve seen a spike in demand for online services,” He Yongming, vice president of Alipay’s open ecosystem business. “This trend will only grow stronger even after the virus outbreak ends.”

Ant Financial, the company that owns Alipay, estimates there are as many as 100 million small merchants in China. The goal is to drive these merchants to the mini programs, also enabling them to manage customer data, conduct promotions and marketing analysis.

Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.
Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

It has shown initial success in helping some companies weather the economic impact of the virus shutdown in China. Meicai, a $7 billion startup that connects farmers with restaurants, used the mini program to instead link directly with retail customers. It saw more than 800,000 new users from across 80 cities in China order groceries in a week, according to a joint statement.

A property service provider began offering real estate auctions via the mini program, selling 110 million yuan ($16 million) in property in total over three days, according to Ant. It used Alipay’s identity verification system, a live-stream of the auction in real-time and a private blockchain that incorporated the local notary agency.

After Ant rolled out its Covid-19 coping incentives, more than 1,200 developers created 181 new mini programs on Alipay focusing on grocery deliveries, legal and medical advice, it said in a statement on Tuesday.

Chipping Away

But Alipay was late to the game three years ago on mini programs. The lite-app model championed by competitor WeChat, which has 1 billion-plus users, was one of its most important initiatives back in 2017. WeChat’s users can now access ride hailing services, order food in restaurants and pick cinema seats. The company sells ads on the mini services to generate cash.

WeChat has been chipping away at Alipay’s market share, partly due to the advent of mini programs. Alipay accounted for about 54% of the mobile payments market in the third quarter, according to researcher Analysys, a significant drop from when it used to control most of the sector.

When it comes to making money, Alipay is taking a different approach than inserting ads. Instead it wants to generate income by providing customer analysis to its merchants, or even help with financing, He said.

The latest data show Ant had about 600 million monthly active users for its mini programs, while WeChat had about 300 million people a day tapping its platforms. Ant declined to disclose its daily usage data.

“We’re different in terms of what we can offer to service providers compared with WeChat,” said He. “Our mini-program service will provide more functions to meet SME demands in user management, payments and financing.”

Bloomberg News
Ant Financial Alibaba WeChat China Jack Ma
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