Tech | January 18, 2023 5:21 am

What Is Temu and Why Is It Suddenly America’s Most Popular App?

A shopping site from China has taken off thanks to insanely cheap prices. But is it a good deal?

The Temu website arranged in Hong Kong, China, on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. In September, Pinduoduo launched Temu a global online shopping platform that is already climbing the ranks in the US Apple Store.
Temu is the shopping app where discounts are front and center
Lam Yik/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The top free app on Apple is called Temu, and it only launched in the U.S. last fall. But its sudden popularity is for good reason: Not only are the prices on the app ridiculously low, but there are also (some) products that you’ll actually want to buy.

Temu is the American subsidiary of Pinduoduo, a discount shopping portal in China that’s competing pretty well with Alibaba (basically, China’s answer to Amazon). Given our inflation fears and tightened budgets, it’s probably a good time in America to introduce a service that offers seemingly endless discounts, free shipping and a majority of items under $10.

A month after its September launch, Temu (pronounced tee-moo) had already become the number-one shopping app in America — and not necessarily by word of mouth. “I believe [its success is] driven almost exclusively by ads,” as Juozas Kaziukėnas, founder of Marketplace Pulse, told MIT Technology Review. “I’m seeing relatively no mentions of Temu on social media. That makes me believe that there’s very little organic recognition of the brand yet.”

My initial fear was that Temu would turn out to be a variation of Wish, an online marketplace that rose to success thanks to dirt-cheap prices but also faced serious accusations of offering inferior or counterfeit products. And should there be concerns about buying from merchants that we may know little about in this country? 

I can’t answer the second question, but there are name brands on Temu, along with plenty of stockists I had obviously never heard of…which is no different from when I do a search on Amazon. So in my initial review, I can only go with what I see on Temu’s pages and how they completed my first two orders. 

A screenshot of Temu's shopping site
The listing for the $3.70 Lenovo earbuds, available on Temu
Screenshot/Temu

If you download the app or go to the Temu site, you’ll get hit with the equivalent of a hundred neon signs offering discounts, 90% off deals and a free shipping counter that always seems to suggest the offer will go away within hours… or until the next day, when you’ll inevitably see the same counter again. I’d say the page is somewhere between Amazon’s deals page (down to the lightning deals) and Wayfair’s home page, which is pretty much all doorbuster call-to-action prompts.

Temu’s app claims they offer “up to 90% off on shoes, clothes and more” but it’s hard to tell what the original prices were if you aren’t familiar with the brands — which apparently offer such big savings because they’ve cut out the middleman to sell directly on this site. Your success may vary; I didn’t find much to buy in the clothes section, but I thought the app offered astounding discounts on electronics and kitchen supplies. I bought a $3.70 pair of Lenovo LP40 earbuds and a pants hanger for $2.30 (the latter of which did come with the caveat of “random color” … it turned out to be white).

But then the fun began. Temu offered me a 30% discount and free shipping — one of many discount options the site suggests (just today, I’m currently getting prompts offering $8 off all orders over $60 and a different 20% off option if I give the site my phone number for text ads). Overall, my first order was $4.57, and the package arrived 12 days later. Had it arrived just two days after that deadline, they were also willing to give me a $5 credit for being late (note: I was able to track the order from China at every step).

Based on my limited first shopping experience, I was impressed. The earbuds were nothing special but they worked just fine — probably about as well as any budget $20-$40 pair I’d find on Amazon. And the pants hanger, while not necessarily the prettiest contraption, held five pairs of my pants and created some space in my closet. And it was about $20 less than similar hangers I found on other American-based shopping sites.

Not every item on Temu is a winner

The jury is still out on a lot of Temu’s offerings beyond low prices. The company offers to offset carbon emissions for every delivery — which, admittedly, isn’t as helpful as companies claim it is. They also post an Intellectual Property Policy, though Temu admits they “are not actively involved in the listing” of the items, leaving enforcement to instances where they receive a report of infringement. 

Each merchant has its own home on the site, where you’ll find reviews (of both the items and the merchant itself) and top sellers. In a way, it’s more like eBay than Amazon. I admittedly have no way of knowing if all the reviews (which can amount to tens of thousands for a single item) are legit. 

(Side note: Since I’ve ordered twice on the site from the beginning of November, I’ve received 49 emails from the company, which is a bit excessive.)

As for what they’re offering for so little: Well, I don’t think I’d buy a $9 smartwatch. Or a $4 pair of sneakers. Or a $7.48 Hawaiian Santa shirt that’s apparently, by some random metric, 57% off. There’s frankly a lot on the site, outside of everyday home goods and some cheap electronics, that I wouldn’t touch. 

But if I needed a simple kitchen tool, storage solution or phone accessory? I’d keep Temu on my shopping list. And at worst, I don’t think I’ll regret my $4.57 impulse buy.