Uphill battle for S-E Asia's super apps

Challenges include market size, the region's diversity and consumer loyalties

We do pretty much everything on our smartphones now but that means having to hop-scotch from one app to another, so the moves towards a one-stop shop that opens up several functions in a single click look more appealing by the day.

The way these super apps - as they are called - have taken China by storm hints at how they might thrive here. Take WeChat service, which has around a billion monthly users. At first glance, it is a messaging app that functions much like WhatsApp but once you are in its eco-system, you can make cashless payments in stores, hail a cab, order food and pay your utility bills, among other functions.

A similar trend is unfolding in Singapore as ride-hailing services Grab and Gojek further their super app ambitions across the region, where the digital economy is set to exceed US$240 billion (S$329 billion) by 2025.

Both apps, founded by Harvard graduates, are "decacorns" - fintechs valued above US$10 billion.

While there is a place for such apps in the region, the companies behind them will need to acquire scale, "user stickiness" and be able to change consumer habits to find success, say observers.

Grab has taken big strides in this area, with hotel bookings, ticket purchasing, video streaming and integrated transport planning services to be on offer in Singapore by next month, it said recently.

  • $329b 

  • Expected value of digital economy in the region by 2025.

This is on top of its existing offerings, which started with ride hailing and now include food delivery and financial services. It is in seven other Asean countries, including Malaysia and Indonesia, and counts food, parcel and grocery deliveries among its services there.

Indonesia-based Gojek, another ride-hailing app that launched in Singapore late last year, is also well down the super-app road. Although the app can be used to hail rides only here, it offers 21 services in Indonesia, four in Thailand and three in Vietnam, ranging from courier services to medicine collection.

 
 

A FUTURE IN SOUTH-EAST ASIA

"Super apps will definitely have a future in South-east Asia," said Mr Tan Yinglan, founding managing partner at venture capital firm Insignia Ventures. He noted that the region's Internet penetration rate is five years behind China - where super apps have found success - but growing twice as fast.

Meituan-Dianping started as a group buying app while WeChat was for messaging but both expanded rapidly due to China's undeveloped Internet ecosystem, lack of online services, as well as transaction-based monetising, added Mr Tan.

"Most Chinese skipped the desktop era... This created a market of emerging middle-income consumers who were mobile-first and unbanked," he added. "The relatively lower consumer spending power in China meant that monetisation through an advertising-supported model was less viable."

Instead, tech platforms turned to a transaction-based model, expanding into multiple services and taking commissions from every transaction facilitated.

Emerging markets like Indonesia and Vietnam, which share similar traits as China in 2015, are "the perfect breeding ground" for such apps in the region, Mr Tan added.

Mr Arvind Sankaran, venture partner at Jungle Ventures, said South-east Asia's Internet economy today looks a lot like China's in 2008, with millions of Internet users, rapid urbanisation and the emergence of a "homogeneous digital consumer" across top cities.

Mr Tan said: "There is an opportunity to tap into a new customer base of mobile first and unbanked consumers (in the region)... previously inaccessible to the traditional offline incumbents. This represents a huge market for the first super app able to use technology to solve entrenched problems."

In terms of customer and transaction volumes, Mr Sankaran said Indonesia and Malaysia are prime markets for such apps to expand, while Vietnam and the Philippines rank high, based purely on growth rates.

While Singapore is a good base to build on firms' quality of business, its market size is a limitation. Mr Hormese Tharakan, South-east Asia commercial director of global tech consultancy ThoughtWorks, said super apps have not caught on in the West in part because the market is more mature and loyalties for services and products are more established than in this region.

He noted the rising numbers of consumers who expect "immediate, seamless access to content, products and services" here, providing opportunities for firms to integrate into people's daily lives.

TAKING OFF IN SINGAPORE

Singapore is proving to be a different ball game, given its small, competitive market, developed infrastructure and sophisticated users who can easily switch loyalties.

Super apps will need to gain a wide base, be able to retain users and attract people to adopt their platforms in order to do well here, said Mr Tan.

In particular, "given the small market size in Singapore, super apps have to think carefully on acquiring scale and the associated unit economics", he added.

Typically, super apps start by providing a basic service with a high frequency of use to acquire users and collect data, before adding other functions. Core services such as mobile messaging and ride hailing have razor-thin margins, however, so apps need to scale up to survive.

But competition is stiff, given the number of established players in Singapore's economy, Mr Tan said.

A potential solution lies in Grab's subscription plans, which incentivise users to return to the app to maximise discounts, he said.

He noted that mobile payment services have struggled to expand amid the well-developed banking infrastructure here, so the "success of super apps in Singapore depends on whether they can encourage a shift in consumer habits".

CHALLENGES FACED

But it remains to be seen if super apps will take off in the long run.

Grocery delivery start-up Honestbee last week said it would stop food deliveries here and suspend its laundry service amid a series of cost-cutting measures.

Associate Professor Nitin Pangarkar of the National University of Singapore Business School said the way start-ups use venture capital funding is another issue. "Venture capitalists are good in the sense that they provide funding to companies that the traditional banks may not... But we have no clue about what the cost structure is, how much money these guys are losing, when will they become profitable, and so on," he said.

"Only when we know this, will we know what the prospects are."

South-east Asia's diversity is proving another challenge.

Mr Sankaran added: "Super apps in China had the early unfettered support of preferential policies and execution within a single homogeneous market, both of which are not the case in South-east Asia."