digital payments

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As contactless menu ordering becomes the norm amid COVID, China pushes back

Digital ordering and paying at restaurants was already gaining much ground in China before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The tap-to-order method on a smartphone is part of the greater development in China where cash and physical documentation is increasingly being phased out. Many restaurants across large cities go as far as making digital menus mandatory, cutting staff costs.

Meanwhile, there has been pushback from the public and the authorities over aggressive digitization. An article published this week by People’s Daily, an official paper of the Chinese Communist Party, was titled: “Scan-to-order shouldn’t be the only option.”

Aside from harming consumers’ freedom of choice and removing the human interaction that diners might appreciate, mandatory smartphone use also raises concerns over data privacy. Ordering on a phone often requires access to a person’s profile on WeChat, Alipay, Meituan or other internet platforms enabling restaurants’ digital services. With that trove of data, businesses will go on to span users with ads.

“These approaches harm consumers’ data protection rights,” the People’s Daily quotes a senior personnel at the consumer rights unit of China Law Society, China’s official organization of legal academic professionals, as saying.

China has similarly targeted the ubiquity of cashless payments. In 2018, China’s central bank called rejecting cash as a form of payment “illegal” and “unfair” to those not accustomed to electronic payments, such as senior citizens.

The elderly also face a dilemma as digital health codes, which are normally generated by tracking people’s movement history using location data from SIM cards, becomes a norm amid the pandemic. Without a smartphone-enabled health pass, senior citizens could be turned away by bus drivers, subway station guards, restaurant staff and gatekeepers at other public venues.

To bridge the digital divide, the southern province of Guangdong recently began allowing citizens to check their health status by tapping their physical ID cards on designated scanners.

Cashless payment is an irreversible trend though. Between 2015 and 2020, the digital payments penetration rate amongst China’s mobile internet users went from less than 60% to over 85%, according to official data. Moreover, the government is hastening the pace to roll out digital yuan, which, unlike third-party payments methods, is issued and managed by the central bank and serves as the statutory, digital version of China’s physical currency.

Seoul-based payment tech startup CHAI gets $60 million from Hanhwa, SoftBank Ventures Asia

Demand for contactless payments and e-commerce has grown in South Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is good news for payment service operators, but the market is very fragmented, so adding payment options is a time-consuming process for many merchants. CHAI wants to fix this with an API that enables companies to accept over 20 payment systems. The Seoul-based startup announced today it has raised a $60 million Series B.

The round was led by Hanhwa Investment & Securities, with participation from SoftBank Ventures Asia (the early-stage venture capital arm of SoftBank Group), SK Networks, Aarden Partners and other strategic partners. It brings CHAI’s total funding to $75 million, including a $15 million Series A in February.

Last month, the Bank of Korea, South Korea’s central bank, released a report showing that contactless payments increased 17% year-over-year since the start of COVID-19.

CHAI serves e-commerce companies with an API called I’mport, that allows them to accept payments from over 20 options, including debit and credit cards through local payment gateways, digital wallets, wire transfers, carrier billings and PayPal. It is now used by 2,200 merchants, including Nike Korea and Philip Morris Korea.

CHAI chief executive officer Daniel Shin told TechCrunch that businesses would usually have to integrate each kind of online payment type separately, so I’mport saves its clients a lot of time.

The company also offers its own digital wallet and debit card called the CHAI Card, which launched in June 2019 and now has 2.5 million users, a small number compared with South Korea’s leading digital wallets, which include Samsung Pay, Naver Pay, Kakao Pay and Toss.

“CHAI is a late comer to Korea’s digital payments market, but we saw a unique opportunity to offer value,” said Shin. The CHAI Card offers merchants a lower transaction fee than other cards and users typically check its app about 20 times to see new cashback offers and other rewards based on how often they pay with their cards or digital wallet.

“We’ve digitized the plastic card experience, and this is the first step towards creating a robust online rewards platform,” Shin added.

In press statement, Hanhwa Investment & Securities director SeungYoung Oh director said, “I’mport has reduced what once took e-commerce businesses weeks to complete into a simple copy-and-paste task, radically reducing costs. It is a first-of-its-kind business model in Korea, and I have no doubt that CHAI will continue to grow this service into an essential infrastructure of the global fintech landscape.”