I’ve seen online ads from Temu pitching products like bicycle shorts with whopping padding, a mustachioed troll with a coffee bag head and oddities like this $10.79 creepy garden gnome.
If you don’t already, it’s time for you to get to know Temu and Shein, another popular shopping app from China that is like the clothing retailer H&M on steroids.
Temu might be a flash in the pan. But it and Shein are among the retail innovations that let you buy directly from Chinese factories in transactions brokered by Chinese tech companies. This is uncharted territory. These Chinese apps are transforming your shopping whether you use them or not.
Temu is owned by PDD Holdings, formerly called Pinduoduo, an online shopping company in China that started out as something like Groupon plus eBay. PDD Holdings has a stock market value of $120 billion — more than the combined value of Ford and General Motors.
Pinduoduo had operated mostly in its home country. Then in September, the company started Temu as its first global e-commerce site. At times since then, Temu has been the most downloaded shopping app in the United States, according to research firm Sensor Tower.
Like Wish, the Chinese shopping site that was hot a few years ago, Temu offers products sold by factories or warehouses in China. You can think of Temu and Shein as copying Amazon’s blueprint, but faster, cheaper and with whimsy. (The apps are pronounced Tee-MOO and SHE-in, by the way.)
“Temu and Shein are disrupting the boring U.S. e-commerce market more than anyone else,” said Juozas Kaziukenas, founder of the e-commerce research firm Marketplace Pulse. “Look at the rest of the top 100 apps — they’ve been around for 10-plus years, and what fun have they done?”
As happened with Wish, some people who have bought stuff from Temu have complained that the products they bought were poorly made or delivered late.
News organizations and environmental groups have reported in the past on abusive conditions in factories that make products for Shein and other retailers. Some Shein shoppers have also said the company hooks people on environmentally unsustainable clothes.
What’s the big deal about Temu?
Temu and Shein are the latest and loudest Chinese shopping companies to enter your life.
Unlike most Chinese e-commerce or app companies — and that includes PDD and TikTok owner ByteDance — Temu and Shein are mostly interested in people outside of China. The whole point of these apps is for Chinese manufacturers and merchants to sell to the rest of the world. Other Chinese shopping companies, including e-commerce titan Alibaba, haven’t been as successful outside their home country.
Many products on store shelves at Walmart or Best Buy are made in China by American manufacturers or Chinese ones like Hisense. A large chunk of merchants that sell products on Amazon in the United States are based in China. But never before have so many Americans bought products from Chinese manufacturers and through Chinese apps.
The next phase of globalized shopping
This is an end to the first era of global retail and the potential beginning of a new unknown in your consumer life.
For decades, companies like Black & Decker, Old Navy and Nike manufactured their products in countries like China or Vietnam. Those factories probably made power tools, sweatshirts and shoes for many other brands, too.
But now a factory in China can sell what it makes directly to shoppers like you. It works partly because we’ve gotten used to buying stuff on Amazon or Instagram without caring which company made the product.
If factories and suppliers in China are cutting out stores and brands and selling products to us, that might mean Amazon, Walmart, Old Navy and Black & Decker become less relevant.
Temu is riding that trend of no-name products to an extreme. TikTok wants you to buy products directly from videos in the app, too. And Shein won over many young shoppers with savvy social media marketing and on-trend clothes. Shein’s temporary physical stores have drawn huge lines in San Antonio and sparked fistfights in São Paulo.
This next phase of globalized shopping has the potential to be both glorious and risky for you.
Similar to what happened when China became a manufacturing powerhouse, when apps sell you items directly from Chinese factories, you can buy products that you might not be able to afford otherwise.
The downside is that there may be fewer quality controls if there aren’t brands or retailers in the mix with their reputations on the line. It’s going to be even harder for you to sort out shopping trash from treasure.
Maybe. We fall in and out of love with shopping novelties all the time.
Temu’s Super Bowl commercial and ubiquitous online ads are a business strategy to catch your attention and Temu offers free merchandise to people who refer their friends to the app. These tactics can mean an app’s popularity is a mirage. Wish also bought tons of ads on Facebook but when it cut back, people lost interest.
How should Americans feel about another popular app from China?
American politicians are worried that TikTok could be a conduit for China’s government to suck up information on Americans or spread propaganda. The focus on TikTok glosses over all the other Chinese digital influences in your life.
Computers from China’s Lenovo are top sellers in the United States and smartphones from Chinese brands Xiaomi and Oppo are popular in many countries outside America. Chinese tech giant Tencent is behind video games like League of Legends. Shein is a phenomenon in Brazil, Mexico, parts of Europe and the United States. Temu is hot.
I’m not saying that you should be concerned about all technology from China. But the attention on TikTok has mostly left out the big question about what we want to do about technology from China that is in your homes and pockets right now — and what might be coming next.
Shein and Temu won’t be the last shopping technologies to connect you directly to Chinese factories. Chinese-made electric vehicle technology or cars are coming to America.
We have not really had an honest discussion about where to draw the line between protecting America’s security and walling us off from useful inventions that don’t come from this country.
This is yet another moment to warn you than any product you see online might be garbage or a scam.
Or the glass half full version: Any product you see online might be an opportunity to find a great deal on something you love. The internet! It contains multitudes.
My colleague Heather Kelly put together a guide to avoid falling for products that aren’t what they say they are, whether you buy on Temu, Amazon, Walmart, Google or Instagram. Among her strategies is learning to scan online customer reviews like a skeptical pro.
Pay attention to the scathing reviews, which might be more informative than the glowing ones. And look at the date of the oldest review to see if the product you’re eyeing received a large number of reviews unusually fast. That might be a red flag.