Weekly reading – 9th October 2021

What I wrote last week

The Mundanity of Excellence

Good Business reads

Measuring the Moat. An absolute belter. If you want to understand the bases of competitive moats without paying thousands of dollars for a degree, read this one article instead. Oh and it’s marvelously free.

Google’s pivot away from bank accounts shows why finance is a tough industry for tech giants. The article cited the fear of damaging the cloud business and the regulatory scrutiny as the reasons why Google is abandoning its plan to get into the financial world. But there is perhaps one more reason. Google may have concluded that their organization isn’t set up to do well in the financial world and the likes of Apple or PayPal are far better positioned to compete. Why risking billions of dollars when the upside doesn’t look that likely?

Inside the Rise of the Game-Changing ‘Chipotlane’. “Digital represented a $916 million business for Chipotle in the second quarter of 2021. When Chipotle collected $262 million in digital sales in Q2 2019, it marked a 99 percent year-over-year rise and was more than it produced in all of 2016. The Chipotlane doesn’t have a menuboard. It’s a digital order drive-thru pickup lane where guests who pay in advance arrive and get their food from a quick handoff. Restricting Chipotlanes to digital orders stripped friction out of the process. And it avoided past concerns that kept Chipotle from ever seriously considering the channel, fast casual perception or not. New Chipotlanes continue to open with sales 20 percent higher than traditional formats. They operate with 200 basis-points higher restaurant-level margin. This incremental profit comfortably offsets the $75,000–$100,000 cost of a Chipotlane and yield cash-on-cash return of at least 500 basis points above standard locations, BTIG analyst Peter Saleh said.

LRT Capital Q3 Investor Letter. It includes a nice write-up on Tractor Supply and was written by an intern

Other stuff that I found interesting

Facebook to act on illegal sale of Amazon rainforest. Significant changes only happen when those in power put it to good use. As in this case. It’s a waste and pity that in some cases, powerful entities like Facebook take no action because they fear backlash or hit to their bottom line.

The great Koh Kong land rush: Areas stripped of protection by Cambodian gov’t being bought up. The amount of forest loss has increased markedly in Cambodia in recent years. The same phenomenon has happened in Vietnam for years. What good is technology when we can’t preserve the Earth and natural landscapes for future generations?

iPhone Macro: A Big Day for Small Things

Writing In Public, Inside Your Company. This makes me think a lot about what I can do at work to make writing more popular

Stats

Almost 78% of all new cars in Norway in September were battery electric vehicles

Only 1 out of 4 households in Europe invest in equities and funds since 2008, compared to 50% in the U.S

90% of American shoppers still consider prices as the most important driver in fresh food consumption

40% of US shoppers will start their holiday shopping earlier this year than they did last year. 22% have already begun, with another 22% planning to get started before Black Friday, per Klarna

87% of teens own an iPhone and 88% expect an iPhone to be their next phone; Apple is No. 1 watch brand for first time

The productivity app Notion announced that they currently have 20 million users, 80% of which are outside of the U.S

Why Square paid the big bucks for Afterpay

Last Sunday, Square announced that it was going to acquire Afterpay, the Buy Now Pay Later provider from Australia, in a $29 billion all-stock deal. A lot has been said about this merger and the one bear case that I have seen quite often is that people questioned whether Square could actually build its own BNPL in-house and is wasting $29 billion on this deal. Below is how I think about it.

Before we go further, let’s take a minute to talk about these two companies in general. Afterpay was founded in Australia in 2014 by Nick Mornar and Anthony Eisen. The company allows shoppers to break purchases into four interest-free installments paid every two weeks. Afterpay charges merchants 3-4 times interchange rate in exchange for customer leads and the underwriting of the loans. Merchant revenue constitutes the majority of Afterpay revenue while late fees make up around 9% of the top line. Currently available in Australia, New Zealand, the U.S, the UK and Canada, Afterpay is launching services in a few European countries such as France, Italy and Spain.

Originally started as a payment company with a little credit card reader, Square has grown leaps and bounds over the years to become a publicly traded financial company with over 30 different services, a banking license and over $126 billion in market cap as of this writing. Square’s revenue comes from different sources. Bitcoin makes up more than 50% of Square’s revenue, even though the gross margin is only around 2%. The company sells POS hardware at a cost to merchants and charges them for used services. If merchants and customers want to receive funds instantly, they must pay Square a small fee. Square also offers merchants loans from which it earns interests. Last but not least, there is interchange revenue from millions of transactions processed through Cash App.

Square used to have a BNPL option which was discontinued due to the effects of Covid-19. Then why the sudden change of heart and why wouldn’t Square reactivate Square Installments instead of paying an enormous sum for Afterpay? First of all, it’s about international expansion. While Square is available in some overseas markets, 85% of its GMV is from the domestic front. Meanwhile, more than 50% of Afterpay’s GMV originates from non-US markets. Acquiring Afterpay gives Square quick access to those international markets and reduces reliance on its home market. Plus, it’s not really easy to build up a BNPL service from scratch. In addition to having to acquire merchants and users, to be a BNPL provider, one has to deal with a lot of regulation hurdles. These are the things that currently Afterpay does better than Square in non-US markets. Hence, this purchase will help Square bypass all the trouble and acquire these skills quickly.

Second, customer acquisition. Afterpay’s main clientele includes Enterprise merchants wanting to leverage its popularity with consumers. On the other hand, while Square’s fastest growing segment is merchants whose GMV is higher than $500,000 a year, I doubt they are big enough that we can call them Enterprise. Hence, this acquisition enables the acquirer to move up the ladder and into a new market. The U.S is responsible for 62% and 43% of Afterpay’s active customers and GMV respectively. However, I’d say that in terms of reach to U.S consumers, Square is the far better company in this equation and has multiple touchpoints that it can use to acquire new users (Credit Karma tax, Cash App P2P, Bitcoin trading). Therefore, Square can definitely assist Afterpay in user acquisition. On the other hand, Afterpay gives Square access to the former’s high income customer base in coastal cities where Square isn’t as competitive as in the South.

Third, merchant acquisition and retention. Merchants pay BNPL providers because of not only consumer preferences, but also the new business that these providers bring due to their marketing reach. For instance, Klarna reported 22 million customer lead referrals in the U.S December 2020 alone. This extra revenue is what merchants, especially smaller ones, crave and are willing to pay for. With the Discovery tool from Afterpay, Square can strengthen the relationship with merchants and keep them in the ecosystem. The more merchants they have, the more their Cash App can appeal to consumers and the healthier the whole ecosystem will be. As a result, the addition of the Discovery tool is strategically beneficial to Square.

Last but not least, this merger is about the competition. Square ‘s main challenger in the race to become the Super Financial App is PayPal. Formerly a P2P platform and a primary checkout option on eBay, PayPal has transformed itself into a financial service and a formidable eCommerce player. It provides both merchants and consumers with multiple different services to facilitate in-store and online transactions. With PayPal, shoppers can pay in stores and online with QR Code, tap-to-pay, mobile wallet, debit cards, credit cards and PayPal Credit. In the past few months, the company has ramped up significantly efforts in cryptocurrency trading, one of the selling points of Cash App. Additionally, PayPal recently launched Zettle, its card reader, in the US, a direct threat to Square’s bread and butter. PayPal’s own BNPL, PayPal in 4, has facilitated $3.5 billion in GMV in a few markets since its launch in August 2020, $1.5 of which came in the last 90 days alone. As mentioned above, Square no longer has an installment service.

Outside of the U.S, PayPal and Klarna, the global leader in BNPL, share a lot of market overlap with Square and Afterpay. This acquisition of Afterpay gives Square an instant counterweight to these competitors. Could Square build its own BNPL muscles? Absolutely, I have no doubt about it. But it will take a lot of time and resources for Square to play catch-up. By the time the company could form a respectable presence in the markets, PayPal and Klarna would already sign more merchants, gain more market share and establish a purchase habit as well as brand name with consumers. It would be incredibly tough to overcome these advantages. With Afterpay, Square won’t have to start from scratch and can compete right away with their rivals.

In summary, from my perspective, there are legitimate reasons why Square made such a big splash. Afterpay brings to the table what Square needs for its growth plan and more importantly, it does so instantly. Of course, M&A deals fail all the time. Synergies are often overstated. Cultural clashes tend to be overlooked. Execution doesn’t materialize as expected. Management teams butt heads. All kinds of trouble can happen to derail a partnership. This one isn’t immune to such risks. But I hope that one day we can look back at this deal as an important milestone and lever that propels Square to incredible heights.

Figure 1 – An example of regulatory hurdles that a BNPL provider has to deal with. Source: Afterpay
Figure 2 – Afterpay can help Square move up market. Source: Square + Afterpay
Figure 3 – Afterpay can expand to coastal cities in the U.S and acquire higher income clientele. Source: Square + Afterpay
Figure 3 – Integration of Afterpay into Cash App. Source: Square + Afterpay
Fincog Overview of BNPL Providers, Ranked by Size
Figure 5 – GMV of Global BNPL Providers. Source: Fintechnews
Figure 6 – Klarna’s footprint. Source: Klarna

A Look At “Buy Now Pay Later”

“Buy Now Pay Later” (BNPL) lets consumers break down purchases into smaller installments, either for free or with a charge. Sounds familiar? BNPL isn’t a new concept. Your credit card is essentially the OG of BNPL. When you put a big purchase (like a mattress or a new smart TV) on your credit card, you can spread out the outstanding balance into smaller chunks over a few months. If you make prompt payments every cycle, there will be no finance charge or late fees. Otherwise, you’ll incur penalties which can be fairly expensive as credit cards’ APR is usually in the high teens or the 20s.

What is the difference between BNPL and credit cards then? While credit cards can be convenient, securing approval isn’t always easy, especially for low FICO customers. Even though possession of a credit card can boost one’s FICO in the long term, upon an application for a new card, consumers will likely receive a hard FICO pull which hurts their standing in the short term; the price that some customers are reluctant to pay. Furthermore, it can take a couple of weeks for consumers to receive their plastics. With BNPL, consumers can receive a decision from BNPL online in a few minutes and there is only a soft FICO pull that doesn’t hurt their credit standing in the short term. As Covid-19 forced businesses to move from brick-and-mortar to online and it placed significant financial constraints on consumers, it created a perfect environment for BNPL to thrive.

Who are the main players and what do they offer?

  • Afterpay is among the biggest BNPL lenders in the US. Hailing from Australia, the company only entered the US market in 2018. Remarkably, the US has quickly become the biggest contribution to the company’s revenue in only 3 years. Afterpay doesn’t charge interest. Consumers make the down payment at the time of the purchase and have to pay off balance in 6 weeks (a payment every 2 weeks) to avoid late fees.
  • Klarna is a Swedish startup that offers payment and financial services, including BNPL. It entered the US market in 2015. Klarna allows consumers to make interest-free installments within 30 days or 6 weeks. It also offers high-interest financing options that spread out payments in a longer term.
  • US consumers should be very familiar with Paypal. The company launched its BNPL offering last August. Paypal’s BNPL is similar to Afterpay’s, allowing consumers to break down purchases into 4 interest-free installments.
  • Affirm was founded by ex Paypal, Max Levchin in 2012. Its model is slightly different from other BNPL lenders’ in a sense that Affirm doesn’t charge consumers usage or late fees. Payment options include monthly interest-free installments in 3 months or installments with interest over a longer period.

These startups have played an important role in popularizing BNPL. Now, banks joined the party. Amex launched its BNPL a couple of years ago, but on a fairly limited basis. Since then, it has opened it up to more customers. Chase also introduced its own version called “My Chase Plan”. These banks let consumers make interest-free installments with a monthly fee equal to a percentage of the purchase’s amount. This gives borrowers incentive to pay off their balance as soon as possible, because the longer the plan is, the more fee they will have to pay. Amex even lets its customers combine multiple purchases into one BNPL plan. Unlike startup BNPL providers, these banks impose a minimum requirement of $100 per purchase, along with other criteria, to ensure that customers aren’t overextended.

 InterestInstallment FrequencyFee to use BNPLLate fees
After Pay0%Every 2 weeksNoneYes
Affirm0% – 30%Monthly, up to 12 monthsNoneNone
Amex0%Every month% of each eligible plan’s total amount. Yes
Chase0%Every month between 3-18 months% of each eligible plan’s total amount.Yes
Klarna0% – 19.99%Every 2 weeks or in 30 days for 0%Every month up to 36 months with APRNoneYes
Paypal0%Every 2 weeksNoneYes
Quadpay0%Every 2 weeksNoneYes
 AmexChase
How many plans can an account have?10 active plans at a time10 active or pending plans at a time
Minimum purchase requirement$100$100
Penalties for paying off plans earlyNoNo
Rewards on BNPL purchasesYesYes
Are refunds/returns automatically applied to an account’s balance?No, customers must call the issuerNo, customers must call the issuer
Can authorized users set up plans?Only card owners or Authorized Account Managers with Full Access can set up a planOnly card owners can set up a plan

What do merchants and consumers get from BNPL?

For shoppers, BNPL lets them spread out a big purchase into smaller interest-free installments quickly and without a credit card. As mentioned above, the convenience and speed that BNPL brings are even more attractive during Covid-19, especially to younger shoppers who may not build their credit yet or may not have a credit card. Klarna and Afterpay claimed that 90% of their transactions were with debit cards, and 72% of those customers had enough balance on their checking account to cover 2-5x the purchase amount. To lock in customers, BNPL providers such as Klarna and Afterpay launched loyalty programs respectively with additional benefits for their most engaged customers. Klarna’s rewards program Vibe was launched first in the US in June 2020. The no-fee program allows customers to earn 1 point for every dollar spent. The points can be later redeemed for gift cards. Klarna reported that the program exceeded more than 1 million members. On the other hand, Afterpay’s loyalty program Pulse offers a different set of benefits. Registered members in the program can opt to pay nothing up front, choose to reschedule up to 6 payment dates and buy Afterpay gift cards. With Amex and Chase, shoppers accrue points to their bank rewards accounts and can be redeemed later.

However, there are risks for consumers when using BNPL services. A study found that many shoppers incurred late fees, not because they couldn’t make payments financially, but because they lost track of their payment schedule. While this prospect is real, BNPL providers are taking steps to make it easier for shoppers to pay on time. Klarna lets customers set up automatic payments and send out notifications. In the long term, it will be better for BNPL providers to rely too much on late fees. The second risk lies in the consumer protection or lack thereof and the difficulty when it comes to refunds/returns. Credit card issuers have to stop payments when they are disputed. With other BNPL providers, consumers first have to contact sellers, get credit and then proceed to the next steps with the lenders and the outcome is less guaranteed.

From a merchant’s perspective, BNPL brings more customers as the service providers spend a lot of money on marketing and user acquisition. Regardless of whether borrowers make payments on time, merchants get paid in full up front and they don’t have to bear the risk of chargebacks or fraud. In return, though, merchants have to relinquish a fee for each transaction to BNPL providers that can be multiple times higher than what they usually pay in interchange. Plus, merchants risk losing their relationship with customers. I wrote about the importance of owning your relation with your customers. If shoppers feel more attached to BNPL providers than merchants, in the same way shoppers feel more attached to Amazon than the sellers on Amazon’s website, merchants run a risk of losing bargaining power.

BNPL adoption

Because it brings flexibility in payments, BNPL became a hit with shoppers in 2020. Klarna reported that at the end of 2020, it had 14 million registered consumers, 3.5 million monthly active users and 60,000 downloads in December 2020 alone. As of Feb 2021, Affirm had about 4.5 million users that had at least one transaction in the last 12 months, up from 3 million users from one year prior, an increase of 50% YoY. Likewise, Afterpay had 8 million active users as of Feb 2021, up from 5.6 million in June 2020, and the US is now its biggest market. Paypal introduced its “Pay in 4” product in the US market in August 2020 and said that it was the company’s most successful launch ever. 

The rise of BNPL also benefits merchants. In December 2020 alone, Klarna drove 22 million lead referrals to more than 6,000 US retailers. Reportedly, Sephora’s in-store and online orders through Klarna in the US saw an increase in average order value by 65% and 35% respectively. Additionally, Afterpay delivered 45 million lead referrals to its partners globally in December 2020. As the US is Afterpay’s biggest segment and the world’s biggest retail market, it likely made up more than half of those referrals. Over the last 12 months, Afterpay reported a 141% increase in the number of active merchants in the US, from 7,400 in Dec 2019 to almost 18,000 in Dec 2020. Furthermore, Affirmgrew its merchant network by 39% during the last 6 months of 2020, to almost 8,000. 

According to the latest Global Payment Reports by FIS, BNPL will make up 4.5% of North America’s eCommerce in 2024, up from 1.6% in 2020. 

How do BNPL providers make money?

For providers that have an option to charge interest up front like Affirm, interest income can be a significant source of revenue. In fact, it’s Affirm’s second biggest revenue stream. Late fees can be another stream, though, as I already mentioned, they should constitute a small percentage of a provider’s income. Afterpay’s late fee only makes up 7% of the company’s revenue. Most of these providers make money from a fee that merchants have to pay them on every transaction. This fee helps BNPL providers offset the cost of fund placed on the balance allocated to shoppers, the interchange fee that these providers later have to pay to card issuers when shoppers make payments and operating expenses. As BNPL lenders become more popular, I suspect they will eventually launch advertising services whose revenue is high margin, compared to their current margin structure. For banks such as Amex and Chase, a minimum purchase requirement of $100+ means a higher interchange revenue. Plus, they charge customers a monthly fee to use their BNPL service. On the other hand, banks have to incur more expenses as they are much more regulated.

In short, BNPL is a trend born out of unaddressed needs of consumers and accelerated by a special market environment (Covid-19). It’s similar to something that once you saw, you can’t unsee. Once consumers experience it and come to like it, as evidenced by the rapid growth of BNPL providers, I don’t see how it will go away in the future. It will be interesting to see 1/ how these providers work to be more efficient, grow their machine learning capabilities so that they can minimize their losses, and acquire users and 2/ how lawmakers catch up to what’s going on in the market and what ramifications potentially new laws would bring.