When shared power banks first popped up in China a few years ago, there was no lack of skeptics. These battery packs, which can be grabbed and dropped at charging stations as small as a mini fridge, can be rented through apps. They target urbanites who need to power up their phones on the run, but critics questioned why anyone would want to rent a portable charger when they could simply carry their own.

Well, it turns out plenty of people like the idea.

First world problem: Low battery on phones. (Picture: AnkerBox)

Around 150 million people in China are expected to use a shared power bank this year -- up from an average of 116 million in 2018, according to a forecast by market researcher Trustdata. Over half of the country’s malls, restaurants, airports and train stations now house power bank rental outlets. And more than two-thirds of users are under 30 years old.

One of the earliest critics of the business was someone who can afford not to share a power bank: Wang Sicong. The outspoken millennial son of Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin (estimated net worth: US$20.5 billion) is best known for gifting his dog Coco eight iPhone 7s. In 2017, he famously pledged, “If power bank sharing becomes successful, I’ll eat s**t.”

As brash as Wang’s claim sounded, for a while it seemed like he had a point.

During the height of the boom, 35 venture capital firms reportedly poured more than US$160 million into the power bank sharing business within just 40 days. The battle for dominance quickly turned into a price war, with some companies slashing rental fees down to 1 yuan (US$0.14) per use. Others offered free rentals for the first hour.

It didn’t take long to see companies struggling under the cutthroat competition. Smaller players started to bail, but so did bigger brands.

Meituan Dianping was one of them. The Hong Kong-listed giant, whose platform offers a variety of services from food delivery to travel bookings, barged into the power bank sharing game in mid-2017. But in less than three months, it quit, citing a “lack of synergy with other businesses.” Meanwhile, skeptics continue to question if there’s an actual need to rent power banks when it costs less than US$15 to buy one in China

But contrary to detractors’ predictions, people warmed up to power bank sharing. Users nearly doubled between 2017 and 2018, according to consulting agency iiMeida. And over the past year, more than two million users rented a power bank at least once every week, said Trustdata. AnkerBox -- a startup known locally as Jiedian and backed by charging accessory maker Anker -- has emerged as the front-runner. 

Industry watchers say a key driver of growth was ending the requirement for a deposit. While many outlets initially required users to put down a deposit of roughly US$15, by this year, 95% of companies had waived the fee. Despite the deposit waiver, less than 1% of users fail to return the power banks they rented, Trustdata said.

For the few remaining players, the industry could have a lucrative future. Chinese media estimate that the sourcing price for each power bank is between US$7 to US$10, and up to US$1,000 for each charging station. The cost is far lower than setting up a dockless bike sharing business, where a bike alone could cost several hundred dollars. That’s not counting the money spent on maintenance and recovery.

The future looks so bright that one player who previously gave up on power bank sharing is now reportedly seeking to return.

Chinese news site LatePost reported this week that Meituan is planning to redeploy power bank sharing outlets across the country.