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Buy now, pay later surge prompts problem debt fears

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Retailers predict nearly one in four online purchases will be paid for using buy now, pay later services by the end of the year, prompting fears that a million shoppers could find themselves with unmanageable debts.

Shoppers’ use of buy now, pay later (BNPL) services in the UK has almost doubled since February, with the average user currently paying off just under five purchases totalling more than £250.

Analysis carried out by Barclays and debt charity Stepchange put the surge in popularity down to increasing strain on household finances as energy, food and fuel prices soar. But they warned that one in three people using BNPL has found themselves unable to meet their payments.

According to Stepchange external affairs director Richard Lane, more people are now using BNPL loans to pay for groceries and other vital purchases.

“Just because buy now, pay later is short-term and interest-free doesn’t mean it isn’t a contributor to problem debt,” he said.

“Especially at the moment, with the cost of living biting, there is a high risk that people who may be struggling will turn to all available forms of borrowing to try to make ends meet. It’s therefore particularly important that adequate protections are in place to reduce the risk of borrowing turning into problem debt.”

BNPL services typically offer users the option to pay for items in three or four instalments over a set period of time, effectively lending them the unpaid instalments until they’re repaid.

While some providers do check whether users can afford to pay back the full amount, there is currently no regulation to ensure shoppers  don’t take on more debt than they can handle.

Stepchange’s research found the average user’s outstanding balance currently sits at £254.10 and one in four noted they’ve used BNPL to purchase an item that they couldn’t comfortably afford.

Earlier this week the government published plans to regulate buy now, pay later loans but rules are unlikely to be brought in until next year at the earliest.

Consequently, Stepchange and Barclays have called on retailers to make sure they fully understand the BNPL products they’re currently offering, and that they re-assess whether those products are right for customers in the long run.

The research suggests as many as 876,000 Brits could be prevented from falling into problem debt this year if UK retailers demanded more responsible behaviours from their lending partners, such as performing full credit checks and reporting lending to credit reference agencies, or they switched to partnering with regulated finance providers.

Myron Jobson, senior personal finance analyst at Interactive Investor, said: “Buy now, pay later is a form of debt, and, as such should be subject to the same rules that govern the traditional credit industry, requiring things like affordability checks and allowing borrowers to be able to take a complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service.

“These services aren’t intrinsically bad. They offer an alternative and often frictionless way to buy goods on credit. Repayments are interest free and signing up for such arrangements is often fast. But greater protection for consumers is overdue.”