Member Brief: A Flurry of Acquisitions

Following a recently announced acquisition of Hero Cosmetics, there has been a recent burst in brand acquisitions – a win for a down-and-out retail category. Here’s how we packaged one of several takeaways from the Hero Cosmetics story:

What can other brands learn from this acquisition? Here is a recap of what we have said in previous reports. There are factors to consider including: product category, price range, perishable / non-perishable, and consumer positioning (mid-market, luxury, etc). No brand should remain a pure-play, direct-to-consumer brand unless they maintain the profits and operations to support that decision. Selling direct is extremely expensive and more rare than any new-age marketer would like to believe. In contrast, going where customers are is a traditionally profitable proposition. A loss-making DTC brand is not nobler than a profitable wholesale brand.

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Memo: Apple’s BNPL Ambitions

There are two classes of buy now, pay later services being formed. Klarna, Affirm, and others are competing for the masses. In a time of economic distress, those masses are relying upon BNPL more than ever. According to Credit Karma, 60% of debt users are more likely to use BNPL because of inflation. Apple is taking a different approach for a different kind of customer and it may have something to do with recent news from the Cupertino hardware and software giant.

Apple Pay Later is missing from iOS 16, delaying the company’s entrance into the buy now, pay later market. Reports have swirled that technical and engineering issues were the reason for the delay. Here’s our take. Apple could also be hitting pause after surveying the current economic landscape and the state of other BNPL competitors.

As Bloomberg points out in its iPhone 14 review, there’s no set time frame for when Apple Pay Later will be available – it could be in the spring with the iOS 16.4 update or it could be sometime this fall. Apple is likely waiting until its feature is perfect but there’s reason to believe it’s waiting until the current inflationary period passes in order to get in front of the right customer. To understand where Apple Pay Later fits into the market, it’s important to look at what’s happening in the broader BNPL space.

On Friday, Klarna announced that it will be undergoing a restructuring that will include layoffs and a focus on profitability over growth, Bloomberg reported. About 10% of the company’s 7,000 employees would be cut under COO Camilla Giesecke’s vision for the path forward. This comes as Klarna’s losses have mounted, it’s been hurt by macroeconomic forces like the war in Ukraine, America’s 9+% inflation, and recession. Private market investors have grown wary of companies that aren’t profitable. From Bloomberg:

Klarna’s losses tripled in the first half of the year. [CEO Sebastian] Siemiatkowski has said that Klarna can’t afford to be “as forward leaning” while investors are becoming more cautious on the industry, and said he aimed to bring the business back to profitability. The company’s model makes it vulnerable to rising costs that might force customers to cut spending or affect their ability to repay their loans.

Klarna, which has become a leader in the BNPL space, extended out “over its skis” as it looked for ways to grow beyond “just” payment solutions. In past coverage, Klarna has said to have goals of becoming the power platform behind the online shopping mall.

Affirm, meanwhile, announced a new partnership with Amazon on Monday to expand on the retailer’s platform in Canada. By deepening its relationship with Amazon, Affirm is attaching itself to a massive partner who can help it stretch into new areas without the cost typically associated with expansion. In a similar move, Afterpay parent Square also said this week that it will launch Afterpay in Canada to get its BNPL services in front of more customers.

Affirm and Afterpay are eyeing untapped landscapes as Klarna stumbles and Apple Pay Later looms: it’s likely a winner-takes-all for the remaining players after Apple launches its own offering. At least for traditional consumers, Apple’s BNPL strategy may differ from the rest. Like the Apple Card (backed by Goldman Sachs), Apple may be focusing on wealthier credit clients. More on this in a moment.

All of this is happening as inflation remains high in the US. Klarna and its peers are vulnerable to tighter budgeting, shorter household cash flows, and limited spending. With many people experiencing tougher times, they are more likely to default on payments, opening the model up to risks.

However, in a US survey, 60% of people were found to be more likely to use BNPL because of inflation, and 53% were using BNPL out of necessity. Forty-five percent said they were were most likely to use BNPL when their finances are tight. That means that Klarna’s troubles aren’t to be blamed on a decline in interest on BNPL. But rather, a more tenuous financial outlook makes people more reliant on services like BNPL. For many, it’s a way to make purchases now without taking on credit card debt. It’s a dangerously unregulated substitute for traditional debt.

That raises questions about Apple’s own service and how it wants to differentiate itself from others in the market. Apple is likely looking for a more premium BNPL user, one that it can link to and turn into an Apple Card owner. Apple Pay Later purchases were previously said to be capped at $1,000, meaning Apple is positioning smaller-ticket purchases for APL, while Apple Card would be used for bigger investments. Apple Pay Later is a convenient alternative to credit for people who have the option – it’s not a necessity. Apple Card also gives perks like cashback, which APL doesn’t, but if it’s an entrypoint to Apple Card, it’s a step in that rewards direction. Apple Pay is also already a trusted service, so Apple could get the sign-off from customers who may be wary of other BNPL services. It’s also a convenience factor: Apple stores all information about upcoming payments in the Apple Wallet, keeping payment trackers and reminders in one place.

That could help Apple Pay Later succeed where other BNPLs falter. Klarna’s most recent announcement follows a year of disruption, which we reported on in June:

What is the main culprit causing Klarna’s valuation to tank after such soaring heights? Is it being in the sights of Apple’s next ground capture? Or PayPal developing its own competitive products? Is it the regulations emerging in the UK against Klarna and its peers over predatory practices appealing to young customers? Or is it the sobering up of venture capitalists as we loom on the brink of a recession? It’s likely a combination of the above.

Apple has the ability to withstand obstacles like regulations and a recession in ways that Klarna and its peers may not – at least not to the same degree. Apple’s advantage may grow against AfterPay, Affirm, Klarna, and others. Apple’s payment systems are native to its operating system and hardware, an advantage that other financial technology companies do not seem to share.

Regulations have begun to ramp up. After undergoing scrutiny in the UK for practices that lure young customers into incurring debt, BNPLs are finding themselves facing regulations in the US by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Fox Business reported on Monday. The agency does not currently oversee BNPLs, but new guidance would apply the same standards for credit cards to the sector. If Apple only lends to Apple Card holders, this regulation would benefit them.

BNPL lenders would be subject to “supervisory examinations”, like credit cards, Fox Business reported. Risks assessed by the agency include user privacy and data protection – something that Apple, which already runs Apple Wallet and Apple Card using security measures like Face ID, has an advantage in. At the same time, the CFPB is wary of a monopoly that would consolidate market power, “reducing long-term innovation, choice and price competition” while giving a few big players access to an outsized amount of consumer data.

In BNPLs, competition is a positive, the CFPB posits. From the Fox Business report:“In the United States, we have generally had a separation between banking and commerce,” [CFPB Director Rohit] Chopra said. “But, as Big Tech-style business practices are adopted in the payments and financial services arena, that separation goes out the door.”

With all of that being said, Apple Pay Later is still mysteriously delayed. When you look at the BNPL landscape, the company could be waiting until the right time to release its own entrant into the market. Once competitors start building back up, Apple could come in and disrupt the entire category. But for now, it’s waiting – for the right product, the right customer and the right conditions.

By Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy and Christina Williams