PayPal Targets Millennials With 'Easy Payment' Plans

Nascent industry wants to make credit applications as quick and convenient as clicking the buy button. Wary regulators are watching closely

PayPal CEO on Global Shift to Digital and Mobile Banking

Consumers trolling Shop.com may have noticed a marketing hook more often associated with big-box stores like Best Buy than an online retailer. Under the product description for a Dell Inspiron laptop there’s a PayPal Credit button that says: “Enjoy Easy Payments.”

The company is offering consumers a choice between buying the machine outright for a discount—or stretching the payments over nine months. The enticement looks to be effective. Since Shop.com introduced the option last July, average order sizes have increased from $123 to $140 and shoppers are buying more big-ticket electronics, said Eddie Alberty, vice president of strategic partnerships at the Greensboro, North Carolina, company.

"We’re seeing more repeat customers from PayPal Credit," he said.

Expect to see a lot more of these deals online as companies like PayPal, San Francisco startup Affirm Inc. and Swedish payments processor Klarna AB push into a $2.6 trillion consumer credit market long dominated by the banks and credit-card companies. So far, Amazon.com Inc. hasn't followed suit in the U.S., but its U.K. arm has introduced installment plans on select purchases of more than 400 pounds ($567). The goal is to make credit applications as quick and convenient as clicking the buy button.

The digital payments companies are keen to grab a commanding share of the mobile shopping market, which is finally catching fire thanks to an explosion of new services including the money-transfer app Venmo. As spending shifts to mobile devices, PayPal, Affirm and Klarna see an opportunity to change charging habits.

A key target is millennials, who tend to shop from their phones and are starting to get married and buy big-ticket items—furniture, TVs, washing machines—that are typically paid off over time. Another is shoppers who have difficulty getting credit, including immigrants and people just starting their careers.

As more and more Americans shop online, PayPal and its ilk could have an advantage over the credit card companies because the pitch to consumers comes right before they’re ready to pay.

"You get solicited for credit cards when you are home going through your mail or surfing the Web," said Gil Luria, an analyst at Wedbush Securities Inc. "PayPal, Klarna and Affirm offer credit at the exact moment you need it. I really want that TV. Do I have enough to purchase it? I can get it now and not pay any interest for six months."

Inevitably, there are concerns that by offering more credit online PayPal and other upstarts will encourage low-income shoppers to get in over their heads. Depending on an applicant’s credit-worthiness, Affirm interest rates range as high as 30 percent; fixed-rate credit cards currently charge 13.1 percent on average, according to Bankrate.com. At the same time, the ease of getting credit—just push this button—could lead some consumers to skim over fine print explaining that missing a payment incurs a penalty. PayPal, for example, charges a late fee of $35—which can turn an interest-free promotion into a costly transaction.

Merchants and payment providers are looking for a smooth and easy checkout; regulators want full disclosure of the rules. PayPal in May agreed to pay $25 million in refunds and fines to settle a complaint from the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which alleged it signed up online shoppers for credit without their permission and forced them to use PayPal Credit rather than their preferred payment method. As part of the deal, PayPal said it would improve disclosure so shoppers understand what they're signing up for. 

None of the online credit upstarts is moving more aggressively than PayPal, which got into the credit business in 2008 when it acquired BillMeLater, which offered shoppers the ability to pay within six months with no interest. That became PayPal Credit, which as of Sept. 30 had extended $3.4 billion in consumer credit. 

Initially, the company offered a revolving credit line—like a credit card without the plastic. Last year, PayPal introduced Easy Payments in partnership with Comenity Capital Bank. So far, it has signed up a few big merchants, including Canon, Keurig and Shop.com in the U.S. as well as Apple in the U.K.  Last year, purchases using PayPal credit surged 27 percent through Sept. 30, faster than overall transaction growth of 20 percent in the same period.

The company uses proprietary algorithms to make credit decisions based on each customer’s PayPal purchase history, so someone with a low credit score turned away by a bank might get credit from PayPal. The company’s vast database gives it an edge, said Steve Allocca, who runs the operation. PayPal processed $70 billion in transactions from 173 million customers in the quarter that ended Sept. 30.

"We have much larger scale and a rich treasure trove of proprietary data," Allocca said.

PayPal shares fell 3.1 percent to $31.20 at the close in New York. 

PayPal co-founder Max Levchin also sees opportunity in offering consumer credit for online purchases. He founded Affirm in 2012 to offer online shoppers credit for specific purchases and has attracted $325 million in investments from such firms as Khosla Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz.

Online mattress startup Casper is a major Affirm client, offering an $850 Queen mattress with no-interest financing that requires applicants to make six payments of $142. Affirm collects a fee from Casper on each sale. Most Affirm credit applicants are approved instantly after supplying their name, telephone number, last four digits of their social security number and date of birth. Those denied based on that are asked to give Affirm view-only access to their bank account so the company can determine based on their transaction records if they can make the payments.

Furniture is Affirm’s biggest category, followed by apparel.

Affirm was designed to be a transparent transaction with no hidden fees or escalating charges to appeal to millennials who may have seen their parents struggle with banks during the credit crisis, Levchin said. "A lot of our customers don’t want a credit card."

Casper met with Affirm before launching so it could offer point of sale credit for mattresses costing hundreds of dollars, CEO Phil Krim said.

"Extending payments over time, especially with no interest, is meaningful for consumers, whether they are buying cars, mattresses or jewelry,'' Krim said. "We see it as a universal offering that appeals to all ages.''

Sweden's Klarna started U.S. operations last year and plans to unveil a consumer credit offering with an unnamed bank partner this year. The company started in Europe by giving people 14 days to pay for goods ordered online, to help increase confidence in e-commerce since people would receive goods before paying for them.

The company considers more than 200 variables when analyzing a consumer credit request, including the type of device the consumer is shopping from, the time of day and where the order is placed. Merchants are eager to offer simple credit offerings on mobile devices to convert more mobile browsers into buyers, said spokesman Erik Engellau-Nilsson.

"The experience on mobile is still broken," he said.

(A previous version of this story misspelled PayPal in the 12th paragraph.)

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