Bank Cards Divine China Consumer Moods on Hotels, Food and Homes

  • UnionPay transactions can show which cuisines are more popular
  • Zhao Meng saw the value in information from 5 billion cards

Big Data Reshaping China Indicators

With a near monopoly on the country’s bank card network, China UnionPay Co. tracks spending in real time.

It’s using hundreds of millions of swipes per week to take the pulse of consumers with more than 100 indexes tracking everything from restaurants to real estate to high-end hotels.

"We can do very detailed analysis, such as what styles of cuisine are more popular," said Zhao Meng, who oversees the slicing and dicing as president of the Shanghai-based company’s research arm, UnionPay Advisors.

The travel gauges can show tourism growth in Japan or how fast visitors to South Korea are returning after last year’s outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

Bank cards play a relatively outsize role in China, where they’re used for big ticket items like down payments on real estate and more everyday spending such as airline tickets.

Zhao sensed the value of the transaction information for billions of cards when he started the advisory unit in 2013 to mine data for clients. Most are financial institutions buying data on card holders in batches of 1,000 each to be used in sales pitches targeting new business.

"Banks used to expand by setting up more branches," Zhao said. "Now they need data."

Zhao, who worked in marketing analytics at Barclays Plc and risk management at Bank of America Corp. in the U.S., moved back to China after UnionPay recruited him. As the business grows, Zhao wants to offer clients useful information without compromising customer privacy and sensitive personal financial information. Until striking that balance, he expects big data miners in the market may find it hard to make money.

"It takes a long time to see how high the quality of the data can be," Zhao said.

— With assistance by Xiaoqing Pi

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