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Why I joined a mobile payment system I can’t use

I’ve gladly signed up for Alipay, a mobile payment service that works primarily in China. Given the struggles that many stateside mobile wallets have to sign up customers, you might wonder why I jumped in to something I won’t have much opportunity to use.

Alipay is owned by Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant. Along with WeChat, a newer competitive system, it has largely taken over China’s commerce in the last five years. Consumers there typically pay for everything from restaurants to golf vacations using electronic wallets. Credit cards and cash are relatively rare and quite possibly going extinct.

The reasons behind this are complicated and well documented. What’s missing in a lot of current discussions in the west, however, is how these companies are laying the groundwork for massive expansion globally. Alipay is currently moving to other countries from its Chinese base, but is still mostly confined to nearby areas where Chinese tourists visit. But the service seems intent on signing up users around the world, before they even have a chance to use their services.

I signed up because of Alibaba’s strangely fascinating online mall, AliExpress. Its website and app allow you to shop for over 100 million products — including some really weird ones, like Borat’s bathing suit — and buy them directly from Chinese manufacturers. The products are inexpensive and shipping is typically free. Given the lack of consumer protections in China, you might be forgiven for being skeptical, but AliExpress holds your payment in escrow until your goods arrive. If something is amiss, you don’t have to pay. Then again, if you’re used to Amazon Prime, you might be a little disappointed. My first purchase took six weeks to arrive.

Now comes the interesting part. I went on the AliExpress website, and found that it offered coupons and discounts on items, but I could only get them if I made the purchase on the service’s app. Like anyone, I like a discount, so I downloaded it right away. Then I learned that to complete a mobile transaction, I also had to sign up for Alipay. And so, to get a very modest discount, I put AliExpress on my phone and joined the largest mobile payments system in the world. Just like that.

As it turns out, incentivizing has been a big differentiator between Alipay and its less successful western counterparts. Thanks to the overnight success of brands like Uber and Apple in the United States, we tend to think that innovation is its own reward. An iPhone was so great that we willingly sought it out. Uber is so much better than taxis that it has no problem signing up customers. But most innovations aren’t like this. They offer smaller conveniences and require us to do things, like learn an interface, buy a product, and so on.

Setting up a mobile payment account in the West neatly fits that bill. Unlike China, we do have credit cards — and they’re already pretty convenient. So for us, Apple Pay or Google Wallet is a minor benefit, mid-size hassle. I imagine that most of us will eventually sign on with a mobile payment system, as soon as we get around to it.

AliExpress, on the other hand, gave me a reason to sign up. It was only a few dollars, but a few dollars may be all that’s necessary. And as it turns out, the company has a lot of experience with incentives. It fueled widespread adoption of its service in China by offering integrated shopping, consumer protections, ability to skip lines, and, yes, discounts. I’d expect to see it continue to find ways to sign us up here.

In the near term, I’m probably not part of Alipay’s worldwide ambitions. According to data from Compete, AliExpress currently only has about 10 million unique web visitors in the US every month. That said, the service is quite popular in countries like Russia and Israel and could offer a compelling reason for merchants to adopt it there. The important part is that as Alipay is already building a large, if largely dormant, user base around the world, that will make it much easier for consumers to adopt the service, if it finally arrives.

In the meantime, check out AliExpress when you have a chance. It’s one of the only places where you can buy a giant toy spider, a spandex zoot suit, a light saber umbrella, and whatever in heaven’s name this is.

Jason Burby is president, Americas at POSSIBLE

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