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One of the most valuable benefits of travel is the culture shock. Seeing how differently millions of people live inspires improvements to my routine and choices. My trip to China this year didn't disappoint. I'm not talking about the non-buckling seatbelts, exotic odors, or haggling with friendly street vendors. Rather, one of the biggest surprises was how Wechat Pay has transformed the way Chinese people eat, pay, and transact with each other.
On a walking tour of Guangzhou, our rumbling tummies steered us to a quick-service restaurant serving handmade dumplings. This was day 2 of our trip so I wasn't used to the local customs yet.
After taking a seat, I waited for a waiter to bring me a menu.
Of course, nobody came.
I was supposed to use WeChat, the messaging and social networking app, to order my food.
Freeriding off my dad's smartphone, I scanned the QR code stuck to the table. A full menu popped up. "Wow, I can order from the restaurant's menu on your phone," I remarked. In fact, I paid in the app. In case you're counting, so far I've interacted with zero restaurant staff.
Soon, a waiter meandered over with my steamy dumplings. He double checked my seat position unique to the QR code I had scanned and placed the bowl in front of me.
When we were done eating, we stood up and left. No waiting for the bill or getting change or receipts.
This experience followed us to every restaurant and cafe, be it at the mall or the airport. At upscale restaurants, a waiter provided a higher touch point by taking our orders. But at the end of the meal, we scanned our table's QR code, paid via an app, and left with a handwave.
Even with a waiter's human attention, the Chinese dining experience had much less friction than a conventional dining experience in the U.S.
WeChat Pay dominated almost all of my transactions in China, including at the grocery store, subway, vending machine, and hair salon. Even the farmers market vendors and taxi drivers use WeChat Pay!
Smaller establishments like street vendors would present their QR codes for us to scan. We would enter the amount to transfer, just as you would through PayPal or Venmo. After confirming the amount, the transaction was complete.
In grocery and clothing stores, the tables were turned. Cashiers would scan our WeChat wallet QR code. "Ping!" In less than a second, we would receive a notification that the transaction succeeded. These authorized retailers pulled money directly from our accounts.
In the U.S., we see efforts from Apple Pay and Google Pay to deliver this seamless payment experience. Venmo is stepping in as the cash-sending app of choice among Millennials. And yet, we're still years away from the comparable adoption of WeChat Pay and Alipay in China.
How do you think mobile technology would change how we eat and pay in the U.S.?
The side effects of WeChat Pay produce entertaining fodder for observational comedy. For example, no longer can you blame the waiter for screwing up your order. Nor do you need to obsessively sanitize your hands from touching germ-infested cash.
The digital wallet experience even provided new marketing opportunities. One savvy restaurant forced us to connect with them in order to proceed to the payment screen. I'm still expecting to get promotions in WeChat from them.
My parents told me that you can deposit your paycheck into WeChat Pay and skip your bank account altogether.
In fact, the prevalence of digital wallets became a problem for us because many vendors refused to take cash unless we paid with the exact cash amount because they didn't have any change.
To give you an idea of how common WeChat Pay is, our friends joked:
"You tourists never have to worry about pickpockets anymore. They've gone out of business now that nobody carries any cash anywhere in the cities."
The benefits and concerns of digital wallets are an ongoing battle in my head. Issues like privacy, security, and ease of spending slow my enthusiasm. And yet, there's just too much friction to use credit cards or cash.
One additional benefit to consider is the reduction in mental energy. Could digital wallets become a form of meal planning when dining at restaurants?
So, when in China, we did as the Chinese do. Use digital wallets everywhere.
Only after coming home did we finally wonder: "how much does the Chinese government know about us now?"
I went to Target in the Bay Area and saw that Alipay is an accepted method of payment. Maybe digital wallets are coming sooner than I thought to the U.S.