Which? warns of Buy Now Pay Later debt risk

News, Retail

Which? is calling for stronger safeguards to stop online shoppers from choosing Buy Now Pay Later  products without knowing the risks, as its new research reveals many people do not think they are taking on debt when using this payment method.

Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) has soared in popularity in recent years as a way for consumers to pay for goods and services, with the biggest provider Klarna now boasting 13 million customers in the UK. But Which?’s research, carrying out in-depth interviews with 30 typical BNPL users, has raised concerns that shoppers do not fully understand the risks of choosing a ‘pay later’ option at the checkout.

Many of the BNPL users interviewed by Which? did not think of BNPL schemes as a form of credit, meaning they could unwittingly be exposing themselves to serious risks of missing repayments, such as late fees, marked credit reports or referral to a debt collector.

Instead, participants described the schemes as a ‘way to pay’ or a ‘money management tool’, rather than a credit provider. One user said: “It allows payments to be spread out for budgeting. It made things possible which in one go would have been extremely difficult and I would have probably had to borrow money from elsewhere.”

Though BNPL schemes are a form of credit, they work differently to more traditional methods of borrowing such as credit cards. Not all BNPL schemes run hard credit checks, for example, and users can normally sign up to a BNPL scheme in a matter of clicks.

Which? research found it was precisely this speed and simplicity when selecting BNPL at the checkout that contributed to users’ misunderstanding. Another user said: “It seems really convenient and no hassle. It just asks a few questions so it doesn’t feel like you’re committing to a credit agreement.”

The research also revealed low engagement with BNPL providers’ terms and conditions. Most BNPL users said they either skimmed the T&Cs or simply ticked a box to say they had read them in full.

As a result, some users had a limited understanding of the consequences of missing payments, and the safeguards and checks carried out by BNPL providers. Some participants were not aware there were late payment fees at all. Throughout the research, Which? also found that BNPL users do not consider the prospect they might struggle to make repayments.

In fact, using BNPL schemes made some consumers feel less concerned about making purchases they would not otherwise view as necessary or affordable. “It softens the blow psychologically. It almost doesn’t feel like I’m blowing £100 on shoes,” said one participant.

Worryingly, many of the participants wrongly assumed the schemes were regulated.  This lack of understanding around BNPL products is particularly concerning given previous Which? research that found people are more likely to be using BNPL at stressful and challenging times in their lives.

Missing a credit repayment or bill or experiencing a major life event – such as getting married, having a baby, moving home or being made redundant – increases the odds of using BNPL by around a third (38% and 35%, respectively).

That is why Which? is calling for stronger safeguards to protect consumers, including steps in the checkout process to ensure people understand they are borrowing money when using BNPL, and warnings about the risks of using the schemes.

Key information, such as payment terms, late fees and the potential consequences of missed payments, should be communicated at the point of transaction to help consumers make informed choices. Given the immediate risk, BNPL providers should proactively make their key terms and conditions more accessible, rather than waiting for regulation.
Affordability assessment should also be carried out for all BNPL transactions ahead of regulation being introduced.

Says Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy:

“Buy Now, Pay Later (BNPL) schemes can offer speed and convenience at the checkout, but our research shows that many users do not realise they are taking on debt or consider the prospect of missing payments.

“That is why there must be stronger safeguards to protect consumers and warn about the risks of using the schemes. Payment terms, late fees and the potential consequences of missed payments should be communicated at the point of transaction.

Chris Price
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