If there’s one thing that global capitalism does well, it’s churning out tons and tons of useless junk. Temu (pronounced TEE-moo) is emblematic of that excess. The e-commerce website — owned by parent company PDD Holdings — sells everything you can imagine, from useless oddities to everyday essentials: a pack of lipsticks shaped like cigarettes, a golden Donald Trump coin, nose hair trimmers, toothbrush heads … the list goes on.
But what’s attractive about Temu isn’t really what it sells, though there’s a certain joy in finding things like this $5 Snoop Dog gnome. The appeal is that its products are wildly cheap. Like, $6 for a pair of bluetooth earbuds cheap.
What Is Temu?
Temu is a relative newcomer, launching in 2022 as an offshoot of the Chinese e-commerce giant Pinduoduo. But the idea behind its online marketplace isn’t novel. Like Aliexpress and Wish, the Boston-based e-commerce company relies on selling cheap, Chinese-made goods directly to consumers, cutting out the middleman (retailers and warehouses in the U.S.). The result is a kind of discount “everything store” that thrives off American consumerism.
With more than 100 categories and thousands of new products each day, Temu’s ultra-cheap inventory is so broad that it almost defies description. Some have compared it to the ultra-fast fashion brand Shein, while others have called it an “online dollar store,” though its closest approximation is probably AliExpress. Think cheap products, slow shipping (7 to 15 business days), and iffy quality.
However dubious that formula may seem, Temu (which means "Team Up, Price Down") has risen to the top of e-commerce in the U.S. On Apple’s app store, it’s the most downloaded free app, surpassing TikTok, Instagram, and Shein.
Temu owes part of that success to its unique marketing strategy, which gamifies promos and referrals. As one user recounts, you might log in to the app to feed a school of virtual fish, earning you free products. But then you run out of fish food, only to find out that you need to refer new users to the app to get more, effectively outsourcing its public relations and marketing to consumers.
Is Temu Legit?
Temu isn’t an outright scam, but its reputation should give you pause.
For example, consumers have filed more than 260 complaints against Temu on the Better Business Bureau’s website. And that’s on top of the dozens of negative customer reviews, which have tanked the company’s BBB customer rating to just over 2 out of 5 stars.
Most complaints seem to be about shipping issues and misleading promos. A customer will place an order, only to never receive the package. Or someone will try to earn a freebie, and then the app suddenly glitches, wiping out the points they’ve earned.
To Temu’s credit, the company has responded to all but the most recent complaints on the BBB’s website, resolving many of them with shipping updates, refunds, and troubleshooting advice.
But the fact remains that while many shoppers have seamless experiences, Temu doesn’t have the best reputation, so don’t expect red-carpet customer service or reliable shipping.
Why Is Temu so Cheap?
Temu combines a high-tech approach to logistics with a direct-to-consumer business model to keep prices at rock bottom.
The first part of this equation, Temu’s “Next-Gen Manufacturing Model" (NGM), leverages consumer trends, sales predictions, and just-in-time distribution to make manufacturing and shipping more efficient. In practice, this means that Temu’s manufacturers know when and how much to make of a product, reducing overproduction. Shein has also found success with this method, relying on its network of 6,000 suppliers and an algorithm to reduce unsold inventory. According to Molly Miao, one of Shein’s four founders, it sells an impressive 98% of the garments it produces.
Much like Shein, Temu also keeps its overhead low by selling directly to consumers. That means orders go directly from a Chinese warehouse to your doorstep. Compare that to Amazon, which charges vendors fees and has hundreds of U.S. fulfillment centers. Beyond its low overhead and NGM, Temu has other tricks up its sleeve, namely its backing from the Chinese government (and the aforementioned marketing scheme).
The Bottom Line: Manage Your Expectations
Ordering from Temu is a bit of a crapshoot. On the one hand, you might receive a perfectly good product like a hoodie or an assortment of hair clips for just a few bucks. On the other hand, you might get a cheap pair of running shoes that reek of carcinogens and fall apart 15 minutes into your jog. Or perhaps you’ll order something and never receive it at all. But because Temu offers free returns, free shipping, and dirt-cheap pricing, buying a few throwaway products doesn't feel like a huge risk.
The bottom line is that you don’t shop at Temu for high-quality goods that will last a lifetime. You go to Temu to “shop like a billionaire,” to use the company’s slogan. The difference is that, instead of Swiss watches, fine wines, and designer clothes, you’re buying shoddily made trinkets.
Cheapism has reached out to Temu for comment and will update this article if and when we hear back.
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