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Buy now, pay later (BNPL) is a type of short-term financing that allows consumers to make purchases and pay for them over time. BNPL is also commonly known as a point-of-sale (POS) installment loan that doesn't charge interest. 

BNPL can be used to purchase at any participating retail outlet and opt for paying later at checkout. After approval by the participating outlet, a minimal down payment of 25% of the overall purchase can be made. The remaining amount can be paid usually within a few weeks or months with zero interest installments. Customers can opt for auto-debit, for repaying their credit purchases via debit card, credit card, or bank account. Individuals can pay via cheque or bank transfer but the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) of the US allows consumers of BNPL to make automatic payments only.

In India, this ‘buy now pay later’ system existed with the name Udhar Khata for decades and this system still exists in a few cities. At the local or ‘kirana’ stores, the shopkeeper manually keeps a record of purchases made on credit which would be paid on a later date by the customer. Subsidy schemes by state and central governments also enable ration card holders to get a boost on their purchasing power without incurring the costs upfront.

BNPL providers typically generate revenue through various mechanisms, including merchant fees, late payment fees, and interest charges for longer-term installment plans. Understanding these revenue streams is crucial for investors and stakeholders evaluating the financial viability and sustainability of BNPL companies. Providers must effectively manage credit risk to mitigate the potential for defaults and losses. This involves employing sophisticated algorithms and data analytics to assess the creditworthiness or the borrowing capacity of consumers in real-time, as well as implementing measures such as credit limits, risk-based pricing, and collections strategies, similar to the process that banks follow while calculating the interest rate of a loan.

Consumers can make purchases using BNPL services offered by traditional and online retailers or through apps provided by third parties. When a consumer opts for the BNPL facility, sellers pay a fee to the BNPL provider. This fee typically falls within the range of 2% to 8% of the total purchase amount. Additionally, BNPL companies bolster their revenue by establishing a strong market presence. They do this by investing in marketing and promotional efforts, helping sellers boost their conversion rates and online traffic.

  • Consumer Adoption Trends: With the rise of online shopping and changing consumer preferences, "buy now, pay later" (BNPL) services have gained traction due to their ability to offer shoppers greater flexibility and control over their purchases. Consumers are drawn to the convenience of splitting payments into manageable installments without incurring interest charges, aligning with the trend of seeking alternatives to traditional credit cards and loans. It seems to have boosted the overall purchasing rate of consumers as it gives them a heightened sense of purchasing power.

  • Merchant Adoption and Impact: Merchants are increasingly integrating BNPL options into their checkout processes to capitalize on the trend and improve conversion rates. By partnering with BNPL providers, businesses can appeal to a wider customer base and boost average order values by offering flexible payment solutions that align with the consumer’s budget. Today, the BNPL market has become highly competitive, with established players like Afterpay, Klarna, and Affirm facing competition from newer entrants, and companies like Amazon Pay Later and Paytm Postpaid, facing stiff, up-n-coming competition each day. Each provider offers unique features and benefits, such as interest-free installment plans, customizable payment schedules, and seamless integration with e-commerce platforms.

Let's now take a closer look at the financial implications. While BNPL services offer benefits such as budget flexibility and convenience, consumers should be aware of potential implications, including impact on credit scores and the risk of overspending as well as the addition of a small interest that increases with each defaulted payment. For merchants, offering BNPL options can increase sales and customer satisfaction but may also involve fees and potential risks related to payment processing and default of payments.

Another concern is the obvious security risks involved with the BNPL model. These risks mainly stem from the fact that a lot of BNPL operators do not adhere strictly to the Know Your Customer (KYC) guidelines, acting against the mandatory guidelines of the RBI. In a study, it was found that Indian Android users have access to around 1,100 lending applications across more than 80 application stores. Out of these, approximately 600 were discovered to be operating illegally. The nonchalant approach towards the prescribed protocols has given rise to adverse outcomes, including instances of identity theft and fraudulent lending practices commonly referred to as "ghost lending".

Potential defaults can pile up and result in an unsustainable business venture in the long run. In December 2023, a Goldman Sachs-backed buy-now-pay-later-focused fintech ZestMoney, after a series of attempts to revive its business under a new management, told employees at a town hall that it will shut down operations in 2024. The venture turned into a fiasco due to the lack of capability to collect the money it lent out. Defaults were far too high from the collection side and its losses mounted, causing PhonePe to call off its acquisition of the company.

These companies require adequate funding to support their operations and facilitate the extension of credit to consumers. They may raise capital through various means, including equity financing, debt issuance, and securitization of receivables. Analyzing the funding sources and capital structure of BNPL firms can provide insights into their financial health and risk exposure. The valuation of BNPL companies is influenced by various factors, including growth prospects, profitability, competitive positioning, and market sentiment. Investors assess key performance indicators such as customer acquisition cost, lifetime value, transaction volume, and revenue retention to gauge the intrinsic value and growth potential. In recent times the market is projected to grow from $22.86 billion in 2022 to $90.51 billion by 2029, exhibiting a compound annual growth rate of 21.7% during the forecast period of 2022 to 2029.

BNPL services can be put as a form of micro-credit facility for short-term economic wants. For many decades, the banking sector has contributed to the Indian economy by promoting financial growth and development, however, India happens to be one of the seven countries collectively accommodating 50% of the world's 1.4 billion adults who lack access to formal banking. Precisely, a staggering 190 million Indians continue to remain unbanked.

Digital payments in India continue to grow at a massive rate and are expected to grow four times by FY 2026–2027. Presently, India grapples with an absence of comprehensive regulations governing the Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) landscape. In response, the RBI issued the RBI Master Directions on Prepaid Payment Instruments on August 27, 2021, triggering a transformative shift in the market dynamics. While these directions aimed to provide conceptual clarity regarding the definition of credit cards, the ambit of this term may now encompass certain BNPL models as well, provided they qualify as physical or virtual payment instruments featuring means of identification, are issued with pre-approved credit limits, and enable the acquisition of goods and services or cash advances.

Since the mid-2010s, fintech has exploded, with startups receiving billions (some of which have become unicorns) and incumbent financial firms either snatching up new ventures or building out their own fintech offerings. One such success story in the BNPL model is Slice, founded by former Flipkart staffer Rajan Bajaj in 2016. You might have spotted the name on the jersey of Mumbai Indians as their principal partner. The company is backed by 82 investors, which include 64 institutional investors including Tiger Global, Insight Partners, Moore Ventures, Gunosy, Das Capital, and Blume Ventures. Bagging $220 million in a Series B round that valued the company over $1 billion, Slice became India’s 41st unicorn in 2021. The company has positioned itself as a challenger credit card provider targeting the nation’s youth– the median age of their users is 27–initially operating around a few colleges in Bengaluru. The recent headway amidst a potential merger with the loss-making NE SFB (North East Small Finance Bank) is a step towards Bajaj’s dream of making Slice a bank–to which the RBI has given an NOC. 

Products are born, grow up and die through their product life cycles, which may be a matter of a few days (e.g., a concert T-shirt), months (e.g., seasonal fashions), years (e.g., Madden NFL football video game), or decades (e.g., Boeing 747). Education and awareness are essential for all stakeholders to navigate the BNPL landscape responsibly. The convenience is unbeatable, and the market is only growing, but only time will tell just how big this market will become and whether or not the business model of companies like Klarna is enough for VC firms and investors to continue to invest and grow their money.

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