Trials and tribulations of Temu shopping

Temu bursts onto e-commerce scene despite numerous scandals

Despite hundreds of millions of customers, financial and ethical scandals have made shopping Amazon’s online competitor not as simple as it seems.

temu shopper
Madison Manczko

Are you in the market for a portable neck fan, a stainless steel tongue scraper, or a five-piece ghillie suit? If you head over to Temu, you can get all of these things and more, and it will probably cost you less than $30. 

Once you’ve clicked that checkout button, you’ll have joined the 467 million customers — including at least one notable celebrity — who have shopped at the No. 1 fastest-growing online retailer.

“Someone introduced me to Temu, and I was like, ‘What is this though?’” actress Megan Fox told podcast Call Her Daddy host Alex Cooper. “I was victimized.”

So, if a notable celebrity with an estimated net worth of $8 million can become a self-proclaimed “victim” to the new e-commerce site, do the rest of us stand a chance? Shoppers and experts alike are weary about the rise of Amazon’s biggest rival in years. 

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign senior Lauren Magana became a Temu victim herself after browsing its home decor section. A particular product caught her eye — a doorframe accessory with a picture of Jesus saying, “I saw that.” 

I saw that Jesus
A wooden doorframe accessory purchased on Temu by Lauren Magana

Magana purchased the doorframe accessory and two posters for around $20, and just like that, Temu claimed yet another victim.

“I was just scrolling at first. I wasn’t planning on buying anything when I was originally scrolling,” Magana said. “But because I saw things like, ‘however many percent off for this amount of time,’ I was like, ‘well, might as well just buy it now.’ ” 

Unfortunately, Jesus did not watch Magana for long, as the accessory broke only two days after it was delivered. 

“I was pleasantly surprised by the price,” said Magana. “But I was skeptical anyway, just because it was so cheap. I’m also just generally [skeptical] when it comes to SHEIN, Wish, and other fast fashion industries because I’m not a huge fan of what they’re doing ethically for the most part.” 

How does Temu work? 

Temu is an online marketplace operated by the Chinese e-commerce company PDD Holdings. Since its founding in 2022, Temu has provided customers with almost any product they could imagine at extremely low prices. Similar to other dropshipping sites like SHEIN or Wish, the site is not without controversy, and many college students are wary of clicking “add to cart” due to concerns of hacking, data surveillance, and scams. 

However, Temu is nowhere near lacking customers or profit, spending $2 billion to become Meta’s top advertiser and $21 million for three Super Bowl commercials, where the “shop like a billionaire” tagline was coined. Despite the risks, people can’t seem to stop buying. It begs the question: do online safety and e-commerce ethics take a backseat to a really good deal? 

Since its initial launch in September 2021, Temu has been compared to various other affordable e-commerce businesses, from the tried-and-true Amazon to the more controversial SHEIN. Similar to sites like SHEIN and Wish, Temu attracts customers with its incredibly low prices, undercutting other (possibly more ethical) retailers. However, where SHEIN owns its warehouses and has direct control over its inventory, Temu takes outsourcing to the next level.  

“You’ve got the Amazon model, which literally they have over a thousand warehouses stocked with stuff. Their biggest warehouse actually happens to be right here in Syracuse,” said supply chain management Prof. Gary La Point of Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management. “So you place an order with somebody like Amazon, and it goes directly to their closest distribution center.” 

In Temu’s case, it sells heavily discounted products that come straight from Chinese manufacturers and are delivered directly to customers worldwide. By cutting out the middleman, Temu can work with over 100,000 manufacturers and sell almost everything for next to nothing. 

“Then, you’ve got companies that don’t carry any inventory at all,” said La Point. “They take your order, and they’ll farm it out to whoever they can buy it from and ship it that way. That causes problems from a consumer standpoint.”

Temu keeps its inventory stocked and prices low by taking advantage of China’s cheap labor costs and mass manufacturing practices. It connects customers directly with the manufacturers, so virtually every product you purchase is shipped directly from China.

As La Point said, this is bound to create issues for consumers with both the shopping process itself and the ethical dilemmas associated with Temu’s business model. 

Why is Temu so controversial?

This may not come as a surprise, but shopping “like a billionaire” doesn’t come without its fair share of complications. From credit card scams to data breaches to poor product quality, there are various reasons why Megan Fox described herself as a Temu “victim.” 

According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), Temu is not an accredited business and has a BBB rating of C+. The BBB is a non-profit organization meant to help consumers find reliable companies and charities and protect them from the aforementioned complications Temu customers have faced.

Despite these issues, a C+ is considered satisfactory. So, it seems that if you shop on Temu, you have a 75-79% chance of having a positive experience, but Temu is not shy about promoting gambling.

The Guardian described Temu as similar to a “digital poker machine.” Like your favorite casino, the site is designed to be addictive. There are always huge banners or buttons promoting some sort of flash sale. “Blowout sale up to 90% off,” “Mother’s Day deals up to 70% off,” “Lightning deals limited time offer,” and more greet you even before you see a product. 

Temu Home Screen
A screenshot of Temu’s home page

Clicking on a product feels like being peer-pressured by that friend you know is a bad influence. You’ll frequently see phrases like “Almost sold out,” “Only 3 left,” and “Lightning deal | Ending soon!” 

“One of the galleries for home decor was also a little overwhelming at some points,” said Magana. They have so many repeats of the same exact poster, and it also says how many people bought it within the last however many minutes. It also said something along the lines of how many items were left. It almost felt like a countdown while I was ordering.”

The look of the Temu website may make some customers uneasy, but many avoid it altogether due to both the company’s real and rumored problems. In an anonymous survey of 137 online shoppers this spring, 61% said they have avoided Temu over concerns about the online retailer.

“Have heard negative things and I work too hard to buy crap and be scammed. Do not like products made in China at all,” answered one subject. 

It’s impossible to discuss e-commerce sites like Temu and SHEIN without also addressing their moral complications. You simply can’t wear something from SHEIN without hearing a comment about sweatshops or child labor. SHEIN has gained a reputation for treating its workers poorly, and now Temu has earned this reputation as well. 

“People are a lot more conscious of where things are originating from,” said La Point. “There are a lot of people that refuse now to buy anything from Thailand, for example.”

These criticisms are not exactly unfounded. According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in June 2023 a congressional report revealed that Temu was taking advantage of a shipping loophole to avoid paying tariffs on orders and bypass Section 307 of the Tariff Act. This U.S. law prohibits importing products that were made wholly or in part by forced labor. 

China is the main target of this law due to the country’s history of unethical labor practices. Most recently, people have raised concerns regarding China’s persecution of the Uyghur people, a Turkish-speaking population in the Xinjiang region.

More than one million Uyghurs are unjustly detained in labor camps, where they produce goods like gloves, hair products, textiles, thread, and yarn. It’s incredibly likely that any product you buy from Temu was made at least in part by Uyghur labor. 

“Uyghurs detained in camps and forced to labor in factories must endure dreadful conditions. In one internment camp in Kashgar, Xinjiang, Uyghur detainees work as forced laborers to produce textiles. They receive little pay, are not allowed to leave, and have limited or no communication with family members,” stated the Bureau of International Labor Affairs in an article titled Against Their Will: The Situation in Xinjiang.

While Magana wasn’t wholly unsatisfied with her Temu experience, she won’t be recommending the site any time soon. College students may be drawn to Temu for its low prices, but it doesn’t mean they’ll feel good about their purchase.  

“I'm kind of being a hypocrite by the fact that I did it anyway,” said Magana. “But I feel like generally promoting it just makes people want to buy from there more, and that increases the industry and does a whole lot more bad than good in the long run for the environment, labor, and everything else like that.”

What's shopping at Temu actually like?

In light of all the controversies and mixed opinions, I felt the need to test out Temu myself. I purchased three items for a grand total of $31, and as I entered my credit card information, I said a silent prayer that my bank account would not become the company’s next victim. 

I bought a pair of high-waisted pants, a light-up acrylic dry-erase board, and a vase in the shape of a woman’s head. I ordered these items on March 28 and received them one week later, on April 4, exactly when Temu said they’d be delivered. 

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pleasantly surprised. The battery-operated LED dry-erase board lit up as promised, and I was surprised to find that the included LED remote actually worked. 

The vase was smaller than I expected (it’s about 4.5 inches tall and 5.3 inches wide), and the plastic resin material made it look fairly cheap compared to a glass vase. However, it arrived at my house in one piece and looks cute on my end table. 

The pants fit surprisingly well around the waist, and, in contradiction to some reviews, they were long enough for my 5’8” frame. They’re made from a very thin material and don’t feel high-quality in any way, but for $8.37, I appreciate them for what they are. 

All things considered, I had a pretty smooth experience on Temu. That being said, I probably will never shop there again. The website looks like it should come with an epilepsy warning, and I don’t love the idea of putting my data and financial information at risk for a $6 pillow in the shape of a dino nugget. 

“It’s a very unique type of thing,” said La Point. “It’s like the circus of shopping.”

Whether you’re a millionaire celebrity or a broke college student, Temu seems to be piquing the interest of almost every online shopper across the country. Whatever obscure product you’re searching for, Temu definitely has it for a price that will not make a dent in the bank account. All you have to decide is whether the convenience is worth the risk of becoming Temu’s next victim.