This interview originally ran on CNBC on Jul 16, 2020. 

Tencent has launched tools to help merchants build virtual shops on its wildly popular WeChat messaging service in China, pitting itself against the country’s major online shopping giants Alibaba and JD.com.

Businesses and merchants will be allowed to sign up for a test of the e-commerce product, known as WeChat Minishop.

WeChat is China’s most popular messaging app with over a billion users. It is a key part of life in the world’s second-largest economy.

WeChat is often dubbed a “super-app” because consumers can purchase flights and use payments, all within the app.

Tencent has had so-called e-commerce “mini-programs” or apps within its WeChat messaging service for a while.

But this new tool will allow a vendor to create an e-commerce mini-program inside WeChat using Tencent’s tool instead of relying on expensive developers. It won’t be a centralized system like JD.com or Alibaba’s Taobao, but it could help Tencent draw away smaller businesses away from these platforms.

The Chinese internet giant said that merchants won’t be charged for opening a virtual store and there will be no service charges either, potentially allowing smaller businesses to create WeChat shops. Alibaba’s platforms charge various fees for merchants.

Tencent also said WeStore will support livestreaming, which has become a popular way for Chinese consumers to shop. This is a feature competitors such as Alibaba-owned Taobao supports too.

The Minishop will also provide merchants with order management services, transaction, logistics and after-sales support.

Tencent’s advantages lie in its already-massive user base plus its potential access to data, experts told CNBC. WeChat Pay is used to pay for items on other websites. The messaging app also has a function called “Moments” which allows users to post pictures, videos and links to websites. These two features could also play a part in helping Tencent target users.

“Tencent broadly sits on quite a bit of both online and offline consumer data,” Jacob Cooke, CEO of WPIC, an e-commerce tech and marketing firm that helps foreign brands sell in China, told CNBC.

“For instance, the platform would be able to recommend e-commerce products similar to what they see in offline purchases that consumers make via WeChat Pay.”

That data could attract merchants to build Minishops on WeChat.

“Tencent could also understand what consumers are talking about from all the Moments, etc. This will make ‘recommendation’ much more useful in two folds:  1/ Richer insights on consumers to make better range selection for WeStore;  2/ A true personalized recommendation on products to individual consumers in the long run,” Pedro Yip, partner and the head of the retail and consumer goods practice for Greater China at Oliver Wyman, told CNBC on email.

Despite its own strong brand, Tencent could face some challenges.

It will need to “have a clear proposition” for the Minishop and “have strong quality control” to ensure an abundance of fake products do not proliferate the platform, according to Yip.

Read the article here on CNBC‘s website.