Shop like a billionaire? I bought six items from Temu – the app that’s sweeping the world – The Guardian

Shop like a billionaire? I bought six items from Temu – the app that’s sweeping the world – The Guardian yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7

Amid the cost of living crisis, China’s answer to Amazon is proving wildly popular, with more than 100m app downloads this year. But are the items any good?
The adverts may be following you around the internet. Some are for practical things: reusable sandwich wrappers, rechargeable torches, T-shirts. The rest are far less practical: plush toys shaped like cups of bubble tea, teaspoons shaped like shovels, plastic covers for TV remote controls. What unites them all is that, on the face of it, they cost next to nothing. At a time when even your local poundshop has put up its prices, the Chinese online marketplace Temu – pronounced tee-moo – seems to offer every low- to mid-priced consumer item you could ever need. Its “£1 or less” section goes on for pages and pages.
Its success has been swift: it is currently the most downloaded app in the UK and US and has had more than 100m downloads in the US and Europe since January.
The idea of shipping items – many of which we don’t need – halfway around the world does not feel very environmentally friendly, but it is clearly attracting consumers. “We are in a cost of living crisis and people are looking for anything to save a bit of money,” says Miya Knights, the publisher of Retail Technology magazine and the co-author of a book about Amazon. “Everyone likes a bargain and Temu ticks those boxes.”
The website promises you can “shop like a billionaire”; while it’s unclear whether Elon Musk and friends buy many sets of 89p insoles, it offers those of us with less cash the chance to spend without breaking the bank. On the face of it, you could get a new dress and shoes for just over a fiver, throw in a faux crocodile-skin handbag for another 58p and have the whole lot delivered to your door free of charge.
But it’s not that straightforward, as I found out when I went shopping. I placed two orders on the site – this is what I bought.
Imagine a pot of Vaseline then halve it, then halve it again and again until it’s about the size of your thumb. This is what the components of the lip balm set I bought look like in real life. They are tiny. It reminded me of those stories of people who order things on eBay and find themselves with doll’s house furniture.
If you read the one-star reviews for the product, you will be warned of its size. But here is a Temu trick: those reviews exist, but are hard to find. The “low rating” button is at the end of a list of filters, so on many pages it doesn’t appear until you press a drop-down arrow. And it is greyed out – as if you can’t click on it. It seems designed to put you off digging too deep. If you do, you will find the warnings: “ABSOLUTELY NOT SOOO SMALLL NOOOO,” and: “Absolutely tiny don’t be fooled by the picture.”
Across the site, you are given the impression that everything has a four- or five-star rating. However, sometimes the ratings that appear under the goods are for the retailer, not the item. A dragon T-shirt, for example, appears to get a 4.5 rating based on more than 1,700 reviews, even though there are only two reviews for the product itself, one of which is two stars because the fabric “is like poor-quality sports material” and “it’s poorly cut. A bad fit”. It feels like bad reviews are being disguised. When contacted by the Guardian, Temu admitted that it was “aware of this issue as well. We believe it results in poor user experience for consumers” and said it would be resolving the problem within weeks.
Like the rest of my shopping, the lip balms arrived in a plain grey bag with no padding or bubble wrap to protect them, nor any pretty wrapping. “They’ve stripped everything back,” says Knights. “You are not getting any of the bells and whistles that you might with independent retailers.”
There are only 15 pairs left, I am told, and a little egg-timer icon adds to the sense that my chance to own these “Funky chicken leg print calf socks” is running out. (Three days later, there are 12 left – clearly, they are not flying off the shelves.)
Across the site are messages saying items are “just bought”, “almost sold out” or “just added to cart”. There is always a suggestion that deals have a time limit. There are also holiday deals and offers linked to events, such as the day before New Zealand took on South Africa in the Rugby World Cup final, when items were marked with a “rugby game deals” banner.
How legal are these tactics to put pressure on you to spend? Rob Jefferies, an expert in consumer law at Blake Morgan, says that these kind of claims are OK “if they really do have 10 in stock and they are not going to get it back for a couple of months”, but otherwise might fall foul of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. Temu says that the stock information it displays is accurate. However, it does keep a “shallower inventory compared to traditional supply chains”, which “allows us to respond more nimbly to market changes”.
When the socks arrive, they are not great quality – there is a little thread loose and what looks like a bit of a run – but that is not really a surprise, given the price. Matt Piner, the head of custom retail solutions at GlobalData, says that customers understand and accept poor quality because of the low prices. “It’s an opportunity to treat yourself, but not spend much at all,” he says. “If it doesn’t last very long, then at least you haven’t wasted a lot of money.”
Two other pairs of socks I add to my basket later are much better quality. Weird, and with no care instructions or labels, but better quality.
“My expectation was low,” says Priscilla, 29, another Temu user. She bought trainers, a small steam iron and a laundry basket after her friend sent her a discount link. “I spent less than £20, so even if it didn’t arrive it would be OK.” It did arrive, but the trainers were too small “and the laundry basket tore after I had used it a couple of times”.
Sometimes the price displayed in search results is the baseline cost for the item, while the picture shows the top-of-the-range item. So, you may think a range of multicoloured metal drinking straws looks good for £3.48, but when you click through you will find that this is the price for silver ones; for those that caught your eye, you will need to shell out £4.38. It may not even be the same product. Search for a mini printer and you will get the impression that you can buy one for less than £3, but click on a listing and you will come to learn that this is the cost of the paper – the pink printer is £19.99.
This practice doesn’t seem to break the rules against “bait and switch” – where a consumer is enticed with a low-priced item and then told it is unavailable – but it is very frustrating. Temu said: “If any merchant is found to be using misleading tactics, the problematic product will be delisted.” The printer and the straws were still listed in the same way at the time of publication.
I wanted to stop shopping after I added the straws, the lip balms and the socks to my basket. But despite messages across the site advertising “free shipping”, there is a hidden minimum spend – which was £10 in my case. Temu says, confusingly: “We offer free shipping for all orders and there isn’t a single scenario where we charge consumers a shipping fee. However, we do have a minimum order amount requirement for some consumers.”
This is easy to miss when you first visit. It is also very opaque. I got to the checkout only to be told there was not enough in my basket to qualify for free shipping. Presumably, Temu is relying on people being emotionally invested in their choices by this point and willing to add to their order to get to the required figure.
Like many virtual and real marketplaces, Temu has its share of traders selling unlicensed items based on popular brands such as Pokémon and Minecraft. The listings can make for fun reading – one seller is offering an “adorable penguin plush toy” which is the spitting image of the Pokémon Piplup, another “the lovely frog stuffed animals hand puppet”, which is clearly modelled on the Muppets’ Kermit the Frog.
The copyright infringement isn’t limited to big companies. Small artists have reported seeing their designs on items for sale on the site. In the US, it has been reported that sellers on Amazon have had their listings ripped off by Temu’s retailers. Temu says it does “consistently prioritise and champion the respect and protection of intellectual property rights” and that it will take legal action against any sellers violating those rights. It also says that its protection of brands “is far superior” to its peers.
You have probably noticed that all of the price points are odd. Piner says that these are designed to grab our attention. We might scroll past a shirt for £1.99, but pause if it’s £1.74. “It’s a matter of how do you stand out, how do you get people to stop?” he says.
There are hundreds of things shaped like cheese plants on the site, including slotted spoons. It is impossible to tell if all of these spoons are the same – they look to be, but are listed at a range of prices below £3, and the original prices being claimed vary even more widely, from £2.99 to £7.99.
Every listing I have seen on Temu suggests that the item is being sold at a discount from a considerably higher original price. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) calls these higher prices “reference prices” and has rules that say they must reflect how much the item is generally sold for. Jefferies says if the ASA challenged a seller, the seller would have to prove that the items had previously sold at that price.
Temu says that its sellers list products in different countries at the same time: “The ‘original price’ is typically set based on the prevailing market conditions and the merchant’s grasp of the competitive scene. Price discrepancies might occur due to shifts in the market or if the primary country targeted during the listing differs.”
Back to the spoons. Choosing which to order is difficult: are they all the same? Do I go for the cheapest, or will a slightly more expensive one prove better? It feels like a lottery.
The spoon arrives with a label describing it as a “jungle” spoon and saying it is designed by Elinor Portnoy. On the face of it, this makes it the same one that John Lewis is selling for £14 from a company called Ototo. When contacted by the Guardian, Portnoy said that Ototo has the distribution rights for the product. However, she added: “In general, when products are manufactured in China, the factory or agent, which has the original computer-aided design, plastic injection mould and technical capability, can produce as many items as they wish, or alternatively share the original design with other manufacturers and suppliers. Legally, small companies with small leverage can’t do much. Intellectual property protection laws in China are subject to the Chinese legal system.”
She continued: “If this is the case for the spoon bought on Temu, then at least they gave me credit on the label. The real pain is that often these copies are reduced in quality (that explains the very competitive price, too), which really hurts the original brand’s reputation and floods the market, as well as lowers the product’s perceived value.” Ototo said that the spoon is “most probably made from cheap plastic that is not safe to use in contact with food”.
In the style of The Generation Game, I ended with a cuddly toy. I went for one that appears to be based on the cartoon We Bare Bears – possibly another copyright infringement.
For my final purchase, I could have had a cuddly loaf of bread, a fluffy tardigrade or a suggestively shot bike chain cleaner that looks remarkably like a penis. But I didn’t buy these, despite Temu’s best efforts. Nonetheless, once I had placed my order, I was followed around the internet by Temu ads – and it seemed the products displayed were among the weirdest-looking on the site.
Piner says Temu’s attempt to increase its reach means listing unusual items. “They are trying to stand out and go viral,” he says. “Some of their products are very much about catching the eye. If you’re scrolling down a page and there’s one of them in the advert, you stop. Even if you are not going to buy it, you might click through to find out more and then you’re in their ecosystem, you’re in their shop and they can sell you something else.”
Temu got into trouble with the ASA recently, which upheld complaints about the “sexual” imagery in several of its adverts, one of which appeared to feature a child in a bikini posing in an adult way. I wonder if the bike chain cleaner ad will go the same way.
Temu says it is “drawing inspiration from established websites in the UK to enhance our product design”, which will hopefully lead to a better experience for consumers. Until it does, shopping on Temu will feel more like playing a lucky dip than being a billionaire.
This article was amended on 9 November 2023 to add a comment from Ototo that was received post-publication.


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