ALEXANDRIA, Va.—With grocery and food costs at historic highs, more consumers are turning to buy, now, pay later (BNPL) options to pay for their weekly food bill, reports the New York Times. They’re even using these options for smaller purchases such as a coffee or sandwich.
One BNPL user told the Times she doesn’t hesitate to use the service for her everyday food purchases.
“If I wanted to pick up a coffee on the way home from somewhere and I didn’t have any money in my coffee or eat-out budget, I would push it to next month’s budget,” she said.
Philip Belamant, the founder of Zilch, a BNPL company, told the Times that consumers don’t balk at swiping a credit card to buy lunch or coffee. So why shouldn’t they use a pay-later plan, with no interest, for those purchases?
“Why would you take a line of credit out to buy a sandwich?” by using a credit card, he said. “You are doing it today and paying 20 percent interest on it.”
Klarna, a Swedish BNPL company, first entered the U.S. about a decade ago, and at first, consumers used the service for discretionary, high-ticket items, such as concert tickets or designer clothing, but now that inflation is impacting Americans, consumers are using the services to fund their groceries.
In 2020, consumers made $15.3 billion in BNPL transactions, and last year, that amount rose to $45.9 billion. Food was 6% of that amount in 2021, and in the past year, BNPL company Zip says it has seen 95% growth in U.S. grocery purchases and 64% in restaurant transactions. Zilch says groceries and dining out are 38% of its transactions.
BNPL companies tout the convenience of their services and how they help consumers through difficult financial times. Shoppers can apply for a BNPL service as they’re checking out and can be approved in minutes. Most companies don’t charge interest, and borrowers don’t have to have their credit checked. There is usually a processing fee involved, but typically, the merchant pays that fee.
However, critics of BNPL services say because they are so convenient and easy to use, debt can quickly add up for consumers that use them.
“If you are not financially literate, it is easy to abuse it and say, ‘I will just keep using it, it is free money,’” one BNPL user, who found himself in debt after using the services for groceries, told the Times.
According to Jason Sadowski, a personal finance author, BNPL services are essentially a loan with its own implications. Some of the services charge late fees, and they can exceed the amount of interest payments on credit cards. If customers miss a BNPL payment, it can hurt their credit score.
BNPL users tend to hold more debt than the general population, and 41% have poor credit history, according to a report by Fitch Ratings. The report also found that BNPL late payments have risen from 1.7% in June 2021 to 4.1% in March 2022, yet credit card delinquencies have remained the same at 1.4%.
However, some BNPL companies say most payments are made on time. Ninety-eight percent of payments at Afterpay were made on time in the first quarter, and the company won’t allow its customers to use the service for new purchases if they’ve missed a payment, Alex Fisher, the company’s head of North American sales, told the Times.
Restaurants are also getting in on the BNPL scene. San Francisco-based payments company Block completed its acquisition of Afterpay in January, and restaurants are the main clientele for Square, Block’s retail technology company. Afterpay has been added to those businesses’ point-of-sale systems.