From bicycles to basketballs, everything's on loan in China's sharing economy

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From bicycles to basketballs, everything's on loan in China's sharing economy

Shared bikes that have been piled up along a street in Wangjing District in Beijing, China.
Hou Yu | China News Service | VCG | Getty Images

Start-up E Umbrella may have lost most of the 300,000 umbrellas it rented out in China, but that's not the only consumer good on loan in the country's burgeoning sharing economy.

  • What's yours is mine

    Last year, China's sharing economy transactions were worth more than $500 billion, according to a report from the country's State Information Center. Meanwhile, 600 million people were involved in activities related to that sharing economy, which could grow to account for 10 percent of China's GDP by 2020, the report added.

    Growth in the Chinese space is occurring in tandem with the broader global adoption of the phenomenon — with tech savvy consumers always on the lookout for affordable conveniences.

    A key difference in the Chinese sharing economy has been the role of mobile technology in driving developments.

    "The sharing economy is only as strong as it is in China due to cashless transactions," Andrew Atkinson, marketing manager at consultancy China Skinny, told CNBC. Atkinson pointed to China's robust mobile usage as a factor facilitating growth in the space, which has seen everything from basketballs to battery packs on loan.

    An IT employee takes of his shoes at Xiangshui Space in Beijing's Zhongguancun area, China on July 11, 2017.
    Jason Lee | Reuters
  • Bikes

    Mobike and Ofo might be the most popular bike-sharing start-ups in China right now, but the ultra-competitive space has attracted plenty of other smaller players.

    Apart from Mobike's orange-and-silver bicycles and Ofo's iconic yellow ones, sky blue models from Bluegogo (or Xiao Lan, in Mandarin), neon green offerings from U-bicycle and rainbow-colored, glow-in-the-dark bikes from Qicai are just some of the alternatives users have when it comes to bike-sharing in China.

    Approximately 30 companies offer some form of bike-sharing services to the Chinese market.

    Once registration and deposit payment is completed, users pay as little as 0.5 yuan (7 cents) for a half hour of use. Bike-sharing companies also offer hongbao, or red packets, where users stand to win cash rewards by riding "bonus bikes."

    Given the extremely low prices users pay, the business models employed by bike-sharing firms have led to reservations over their sustainability in the long term.

    Eyebrows were raised when start-up Wukong Bicycle closed up shop after just six months of operations. Wukong's failure to equip its bicycles with GPS resulted in the start-up famously losing 90 percent of its inventory. Meanwhile, operations in the hilly city of Chongqing were another misfire for the company as the environment wasn't ideal for cycling, Chinese news outlet Caixin reported.

    Still, plenty remain convinced that talk of a bike-sharing bubble is no cause for worry.

    "There are definitely questions about how they make money at 0.5 or one yuan a trip … With the immense investment these companies receive, there is really no urgency for profitability at this stage, just a fight to expand market share," Atkinson said.

    Bicycles belonging to bike-sharing company Mobike are lined up on a street in China on Jan. 1, 2017.
    Zhang Peng | LightRocket | Getty Images
  • Basketballs

    Basketball-sharing service Zhulegeqiu (a pun which translates to Rent a Ball) debuted in April this year in Jiaxing, a city in Zhejiang province, and has since expanded to cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou, Reuters reported.

    To rent a ball, users scan a QR code found on the company's basketball-sharing lockers, which are often located close to basketball courts. Payments are completed using WeChat.

    Users initially had to pay a 29 yuan ($4.27) deposit to use the basketball-sharing service, but the company's founder told Technode last month that the deposit had since been adjusted to 69 yuan ($10.17). While rental costs varied, an hour of use could cost as little as one yuan ($0.15).

    Students with ID cards can rent Zhulegeqiu basketballs for free, Technode added.

    A man uses a court-side basketball vending machine at the Beijing Language and Culture University in Beijing, China, May 24, 2017.
    Thomas Peter | Reuters
  • Napping pods

    The sharing economy has also offered more sedentary options for those less inclined to get their heart rates up: capsule beds for napping.

    Xiangshui Space rented out sleeping pods at around 10 yuan ($1.47) an hour. Local media reports from Monday, however, said the chain's Beijing and Shanghai outlets had been shuttered.

    The start-up behind the shared sleeping pods had reportedly not secured the relevant safety licenses or permits, Chinese media outlets said.

    The start-up's sleeping pods had been designed in the style of something straight out of a sci-fi film and came complete with a USB port, reading light and electric fan, the South China Morning Post said

    Before it fell afoul of authorities, take-up of the latest novelty in the sharing economy had been robust: All eight of Xiangshui Space's napping pods in Beijing's Chaoyangmen tended to be full during peak period, the South China Morning Post quoted an employee as saying.

    A man prepares to take a nap in a capsule bed unit at Xiangshui Space in Beijing's Zhongguancun area, China on July 11, 2017.
    Jason Lee | Reuters
  • Folding stools

    Meanwhile, folding stools have become the latest shared good to hit the streets of Beijing. The shared stools, which reportedly have a QR code on their seats, have appeared near bus stops and train stations in the Chinese capitol in recent days, according to local daily Beijing Morning Post.

    Even though local media noted that half of the shared stools had gone missing, the company behind the service appeared unfazed. A spokesperson told Beijing Morning Post that it had expected its inventory to go missing, adding that such a development was part of publicity costs.

    Netizens on social media site Weibo were mostly amused with the development, with many questioning the viability of the service. "If I just sat on the stool without scanning, how would you know?" one user asked.

    An op-ed published on China Daily's website was less tickled, warning that advertisements that appeared on shared stools were not authorized and could be an "illegal use of public space." The op-ed added that shared stools were "a glimpse into the country's sharing model if it gets out of hand."

    Image: A post from China Daily's Weibo account shows an image of a man using a shared stool in Beijing

    A post from China Daily's Weibo account shows an image of a man using a shared stool in Beijing.
  • Electric cars

    While peer-to-peer car-sharing and ride-sharing may have been around for years, Chinese start-ups have kicked things up a notch by offering shared-electric cars.

    Among the services available is EvCard, a rental service offering the shared-use of Chinese-made electric cars. High-end rental options include Teslas or BMWs available at a different fee structure.

    After paying a deposit of around 1,000 yuan ($147.40), EvCard users pay 15 yuan ($2.21) for the first half hour of use. Every subsequent minute costs 0.5 yuan, with a day's use capped at a maximum of 180 yuan ($26.53). This is often cheaper than travelling for an equivalent amount of time by taxi.

    While EvCard makes use of a "station" model, where users have to visit specific locations in order to rent or drop off their rental electric car, other car-shares have adopted a "station-less" model — wherein users can park their rental cars in any location — in a bid to differentiate themselves.

    Another company offering similar services is Gofun Chuxing, which has a fleet of 1,100 electric cars available in Beijing. TOGO, yet another competitor, provides users with the choice of green models or standard gasoline-powered options, according to local media.

    Despite China's planned quotas on foreign-made electric cars, at least one local service has received support from local government bodies: Shanghai International Auto City Group, a local government project to develop an auto production base in the city, is behind the launch of EvCard.

    Such government involvement takes place against the backdrop of Beijing pushing for a bigger role on the global stage in tackling climate change.

    A GoFun shared electric car parked by the side of the road.
    Zhang Peng | LightRocket | Getty Images
  • Battery packs

    Shared portable batteries are another commodity on loan in the world's largest smartphone market.

    Start-ups in the sector, including Ankebox and Laidian, offer portable batteries in locations such as shopping centers, restaurants and other public places. Users rent the batteries by scanning a QR code with a mobile app and costs run around 0.5 yuan for half an hour of use.

    Competition in the shared-battery space appears to be fierce, with several battery-sharing start-ups already locked in patent infringement lawsuits even though it's still early days in the development of the industry, online outlet Sixth Tone reported.

    While local media has questioned the business potential of battery-sharing start-ups, those firms appear to have no problems with fundraising. Laidian secured $20 million in series A funding earlier this year while Ankebox raised $14 million in series A funds, website DealstreetAsia reported.

    — CNBC's Barry Huang contributed to this report.

    This picture taken on July 5, 2017 in Shanghai shows a woman scanning a QR code on a shared battery station inside a shop.
    Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images