In China, the notion of “cash or credit” doesn’t really exist. Each day, billions of users pay for everything from food to tax bills with the mobile payment apps WeChat Pay and Alipay. Now, many Boston-area retailers are incorporating these services into their business plans to better target a surge of Chinese tourists.
Visitors can use the apps to check in at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel or book a Boston Duck Tour. At Copley Place, they can pick up baubles from APM Monaco or handbags from Bottega Veneta. College students from abroad can use the apps to buy groceries at Ming’s Supermarkets, snacks from Beard Papa’s, or a manicure at Tinailery.
WeChat Pay and Alipay exist as payment options within the WeChat and Alibaba online empires, respectively. WeChat is one of the largest social networks in China, and Alibaba is pretty much the Chinese version of Amazon. Combined, they have 1.3 billion users making payments on their platforms. The apps must be tied to a Chinese bank account, and users pay for services by simply scanning a QR code.
Mobile payments now account for 93 percent of all Chinese spending, according to the Chinese research firm Analysys, and the systems are on a path to outpace the number of global credit card transactions by 2025, says Thad Peterson, an analyst at Aite Group.
Both Tencent, which owns WeChat, and Ant Financial, the Alibaba financial services arm that oversees AliPay, are aggressively trying to penetrate cities and regions that have a high density of Chinese travelers, Peterson says.
The reason, he says, is rather obvious: “Chinese visitors, when they travel they shop. They buy a lot of stuff and they spend a lot of money and they don’t have credit or debit cards.”
In 2016, 262,000 visitors from China arrived in Boston, the largest source of tourists from any international market, said Patrick Moscaritolo, president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. That was an 11 percent increase over the prior year, according to the US Department of Commerce.
The bureau hosted a “China-ready” conference in December, and in the months since, a number of its member organizations have started using the apps.
The Mandarin began using the apps in March at the urging of general manager Philipp Knuepfer, who became reliant on the mobile payment systems while living in Asia.
“WeChat has always fascinated me — what we do in 30 apps, they do in one app,” he says, noting that in addition to payments, users can book travel, check ratings for attractions, and share photos from their trips. He says using WeChat is like having Venmo, Kayak, Yelp, Amazon, and Facebook all in one.
Boston Duck Tours also began offering WeChat and Alipay in March, and sales through the platforms have steadily ticked up as the tourist season has kicked into high gear, says company spokesman Bob Schwartz. He says duck tour customers can now only use the payment systems for in-person sales, but they also are serving to break down language barriers.
“China is the largest foreign market coming into the city, and [Chinese visitors] spend the most money, so it’s a great market to try and go after,” he says.
Some locals are doing their part to bring even more visitors to town. Kathleen Moore, who runs Vox Cambridge College Consulting out of Cambridge, says she began using WeChat to communicate with Asian students as she helped them apply to US schools. She quickly realized that it was just as simple to process her clients’ payments through the apps.
“For working with international clients, its much easier than transferring money to banks, which now seems like such an archaic way of operating,” she says.
Using the apps will only help heighten Boston’s appeal for the Asian market, Moscaritolo says. “We turn each of those Chinese visitors into salespeople for Boston when they’re back home on their phones and WeChat and social apps, talking about their experience. You are basically activating 262,000 salespeople.”