WeChat is completely changing shopping in China: here’s how

WeChat social media

A lot has been written about WeChat’s stickers, gaming and other social features; but one thing often overlooked is how the popular messaging app is changing the face of shopping and retailing. While WeChat has global ambitions, for now this relates to WeChat’s China-based users.

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One feature that many don’t utilize in WeChat is its support for shopping loyalty/members’ cards. These give you access to immediate discounts or long-term perks from store chains, with the virtual card kept safe inside your WeChat account. The cards are free to use, and they pop up automatically when you follow brands that support them. There are big names like McDonalds, Watsons, and Pacific Coffee making use of these cards in WeChat already.

Tencent, the maker of WeChat, has a directory of restaurant and mall chains that have members’ cards ready for use in WeChat. Focusing on smaller businesses around me, I see there are 30 such restaurants offering them right now in Shanghai.

This isn’t a new WeChat feature, but it’s one that could change the face of retailing, shopping, and social marketing – and maybe even mobile payments – in China in years to come.

To test this out, I added a restaurant called Babela’s Kitchen on WeChat. It’s the restaurant chain’s corporate account, which is sort of like a Facebook brand page. After hitting ‘follow’ (see below) the first thing that happens is a member’s card slides forward:

The first of the two buttons under the card gives me details about the benefits available, while the second takes me to a list of that chain’s locations. If you tap on a store, WeChat app brings up a map, using the Street View-style feature of Tencent’s Soso maps:

Buried feature
That’s all pretty useful. It’s also great for brands, bridging the gap between social marketing and actual engagement with paying customers. But there’s one major issue for regular folks — the rather feature-bloated WeChat has buried these shopping cards so deep in the app it’s a surprise that anyone has ever found them.

After launching the WeChat app, it takes a further five clicks to reach a shopping card. The volume of clicks is nothing compared to the labyrinthine trail to find it: you hit ‘contacts’ then ‘official accounts’, ‘Babela’ (or whatever the retailer is called), the top-right button that looks like a person, then finally hit ‘shopping card’. It’s a terrible UI/UX set-up. But, wait, it gets worse. I have a card for a coffee chain, but that’s stored under the ‘services’ pane in WeChat, not under ‘official accounts’. So if you look in the wrong place, it could take you seven clicks to find a particular card.

Despite this problem, this is a WeChat feature to watch. Shopping loyalty apps made by startups often fail to take off because it’s tough to persuade people to download a bunch of apps for separate retailers. Most people — quite rightfully — think screw that and don’t bother using them. Virtual store cards will only take off once a major app — one that people already have — implements them in an easy and fun way.

But retailers are going to hate this…
One new feature that popped up in v5 of WeChat this summer will not be loved by brick-and-mortar retailers.

WeChat now has a barcode scanner for products. This is perfect for showrooming. You can go into a store, scan a product’s barcode, and WeChat — so long as you’re online — will list the Chinese ecommerce sites that stock the product in question. With just a few clicks, you could be saving money by buying the thing online — right while you stand there in the store.

A lot more to come
This will all gel together once WeChat is ready for prime time with its mobile payments. That could also work in sync with these shopping members’ cards, perhaps giving extra discounts for cash-less payments.

E-payments were added as a feature within the recent v5 of the app, but we’ve yet to see either Tencent or retailers make the most of this ability. Some are trying, and even McDonalds in China now permits mobile payments inside WeChat. But the feature is hobbled by relatively low uptake of Tenpay, Tencent’s e-payments platform. If that can be rectified and consumers can be persuaded to opt for mobile payments in the app – preferably helped by a drastically revamped UI and UX for the whole of WeChat – the shopping experience in China will be changed forever.

This article by Steven Millward originally appeared on Tech in Asia, a Burn Media publishing partner.

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