Thursday, June 13, 2024

Online shop Temu has become famous for its rock-bottom prices – But there are some major catches

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With summer finally approaching, I was keen to buy a cheap desk fan to keep me cool. 

If you pop into John Lewis, the cheapest one you can find is £15; on Amazon you can get one for £12.99.

Surely that must be the best bargain – because isn’t Amazon nearly always the cheapest out there?

Well, no. There is a rival website selling desk fans for less than half the price at £6.22. 

It is also selling men’s running trainers for just £7.97, about a tenth of what I normally pay and less than half the price of even the very cheapest version in Sports Direct.

Phone cases, jackets, garden furniture, kayaks, fishing tackle, kitchen appliances, household-cleaning gizmos, a dizzying array of products — all are being sold for a fraction of what you could find in most shops or online.

Online bargains: Our writer Harry Wallop splashed £100 at ‘shop like a billionaire’ Chinese website Temu which is attracting huge numbers of new customers from the UK

The website is called Temu and if you haven’t heard of it yet, the Chinese website is fast becoming one of the biggest retailers in the world. 

According to data from Similarweb, which tracks internet traffic, Temu attracted 12.6 million monthly active users in the UK last month.

That’s not as big as Amazon, which had 20.4 million British customers, but it dwarfs the shopper numbers on John Lewis’s website (3.6 million) or Argos (3.8 million) — and it only arrived in the UK in April last year. How has Temu become so big, so quickly? And, more pressing, are its products any good?

To find out more I downloaded the Temu app to see what I could buy for £100. I can ‘shop like a billionaire’ it promises, with ‘free delivery everywhere!’.

And the hard sell doesn’t stop, with ‘lightning deals’ and ‘mystery offers’ on every page, often accompanied by a flashing countdown timer — lest I miss out. 

In the space of a fortnight, I received 56 in-app messages from Temu, 59 emails, 12 text messages and 33 WhatsApp messages.

Despite, or maybe because of, the sensory overload, I was soon sucked into buying clothes, kitchen sponges, a lamp and some knock-off perfume. In all, I bought 23 items for £98.64.

Though some of the prices were absurdly cheap (a claw hammer for 69p, anyone? Or a gift set of 24 felt-tip pens for £2.39?), some were more expensive than I expected. 

For instance, a natty pair of moccasins were going for £7.68, but once I clicked on them, the colour I wanted was £24.88.

Only last month, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) lodged a complaint about Temu, saying the ‘marketplace is rife with manipulative techniques that are designed to push consumers to spend more on the platform’ — an accusation Temu denies, insisting its ‘goal is to create an engaging and enjoyable shopping experience’.

The website is a security concern, say some experts, alarmed by the personal data Western shoppers are handing over to the Chinese company. 

An American investment company, Grizzly Research, went as far as to suggest: ‘We strongly suspect that Temu is already illegally selling stolen data, or intends to.’ 

Alicia Kearns, the Conservative chair of the Foreign Affairs select committee, reiterates to me bluntly: ‘Temu is essentially stealing your data.’

A Temu spokesman insists it collects ‘the minimum information necessary to provide our service and improve the shopping experience’. 

Terrible T-shirts -but my wife loved £5 parfum 

Scourer sponges x5 – £2.38

Moderately tough cellulose sponges that do a fine job of scrubbing pans. I would buy again.

LED desk lamp – £19.47

The item arrives in a bashed box, but the lamp itself has heft, with a nice solid metal base and pole. It gives off three different types of light (cold, day and warm) and the charge lasts about six hours. It’s decent quality but Dunelm sells similar lamps for £20.

Yellow men’s T-shirt – £4.09

I hoped for a bright cotton T-shirt. Instead, I get a 100 pc polyester, sweat-inducing, lurid yellow top. Not a success.

Meat presser – £9.47

These are designed to help get a sear on meat by pressing down on a steak. This is not heavy-duty enough, however. 

One costing £13 from Amazon weighs more than 1kg; this one is 260g. Poor value.

Roll of 15 Dog poo bags x10 – £2.68

At 1.78p per bag, with 150 bags in total, this is less than half the price of my usual brand. 

They feel flimsy, but do the job without any disasters. The packaging claims they are ‘earth friendly’. Really?

Kiwi cutter and slicer – 47p

the plastic knife is useless, but the actual slicer, which you push into the fruit to create segments, works well. These gizmos often cost £5 or more on Amazon.

Wooden toothpicks x200 – 99p

You could get ones in Tesco for less money. But they are very good-quality toothpicks, which don’t snap or splinter. Impressive.

Kitchen scissors – 94p

It’s adequate without being great — able to cut through string and stalks of rosemary but not anything challenging.

Crinkle cutter for potatoes – £1.94

This has a sharp blade, and is able to slice through potatoes fairly effortlessly. A ProCook version of this costs £6.

iPhone-compatible lightning charger – £1.87

A proper Apple wire would set you back £29. Some cheap non-Apple versions do not work, or work poorly. This does the job fine, to my surprise.

Digital spoon scale – £2.82

Amazingly, the battery is included. The display keeps changing if you shift the angle that you hold the spoon, but it sort of works. An almost identical spoon on Amazon costs £3.39.

Bicycle light – £3.81

This charges up via USB wire (included) and produces a light of sufficient brightness with six modes . It isn’t cheap — Halfords sells a set of two lights for £5.

Mini building blocks set, Titanic – £6.48

Any fan of Lego would be disappointed, but it has 607 pieces, enough to keep you entertained for a couple of hours. A set of a similar number of pieces from Lego would cost between £45 and £70.

Golden drop earrings – £1.58

Claims to be ‘copper 18k gold-plated vintage elegant style’. Hmm. Not sure about that, but they look quite good.

Six-piece Cuban chain bracelet – £1.28

A collection of six bracelets, in what Temu describes as ‘hip-hop style’. My daughter, 16, thinks these are quite cool.

Rubber balls for dogs x2 – £5.51

These did not specify they were squeaky; my cockapoo (stupidly) hates squeaky balls. I requested a refund, and was granted one almost immediately after filling in a short online form. The money arrived within 24 hours.

Desktop fan – £6.22

This feels flimsy and light, with an annoyingly short wire. But it works well — with five different speeds. Plus, it isn’t too noisy.

Felt-tip colouring pens x24 – £2.39

The pens have two ends: a thick felt-tip and a fine-tipped outline pen. I am not sure how long they will last, but each pen is a mere 10p — astonishingly good value.

Cooceau de parfum, 50ml – £5.48

A blatant rip-off of Coco Mademoiselle by Chanel, a much-loved perfume that costs £88 for the same size bottle. 

You’d presume the Chinese version smelt of battery acid, but it really is quite good.

Men’s running shoes – £7.97

These feel very flimsy, with a light plastic sole and mesh upper. For running these aren’t good, but they’d be OK for the beach or garden.

Silicone iPhone case – £2.38

Is this premium? No. But it fits the phone snugly, which is the most important thing, and is about 50 pc cheaper than even the lowest-priced Amazon phone case.

Vintage monochrome pleated scarf – £3.48

I’ve no idea why they’ve called this scarf vintage. It was clearly made a few weeks ago. It’s 100 pc polyester but actually feels like a moderately premium garment made of soft fabric. Not bad.

Christmas bauble storage box – £4.49

This does not feel that robust — a heavy box placed on top of it and you’ll have broken baubles. But it is of a similar quality to one that reputable Lakeland sells for £6.99.

Ms Kearns points out that a sister brand to Temu was found to have incorporated malware — malicious software — into its app, giving the company access to customers’ private messages and photographs on their phone.

Temu — pronounced ‘tee-moo’ — is owned by a Chinese company called Pinduoduo (PDD), which roughly translates as ‘together, more savings’. PDD was set up by Colin Huang, 44, a former Google employee.

PDD’s Chinese site originally allowed shoppers, such as friends or neighbours, to gang together to buy in bulk directly from factories in order to bag bargains and it became a huge hit. 

The parent company, listed on the Chinese stock market, is now worth $205 billion (£161 billion) and last month announced its first quarter revenue shot up by 133 pc.

Temu, aimed at Westerners, was launched in the U.S. in 2022 before coming over to Europe last year. It does not allow consumers to group-buy, but it does allow them to buy directly from factories.

Indeed, Temu is not really a retailer at all, but rather a marketplace — connecting shoppers around the world with some 80,000 manufacturers, most of which are based in China.

Shaun Rein, of China Market Research Group, in Shanghai, explains this is one of the reasons the products are cheap. ‘They can sell direct from factories; they are able to cut out all the middlemen — the distributors, the retailers.’

Amazon runs 30 warehouses and ‘fulfilment centres’ in the UK and employs more than 75,000 workers here — a significant cost for a company when the minimum wage for over-21s is £11.44 an hour.

Neil Saunders, at research company GlobalData, says: ‘Running a logistics and warehouse operation is extremely expensive. 

Amazon alone spent $89 billion (£70 billion) on worldwide shipping last year and this doesn’t include all of its warehouse overheads. By cutting out warehouses, Temu is undoubtedly saving money.’

Powerhouse: Temu -pronounced ‘tee-moo’ - is owned by a Chinese company called Pinduoduo, which roughly translates as ‘together, more savings’

Powerhouse: Temu -pronounced ‘tee-moo’ – is owned by a Chinese company called Pinduoduo, which roughly translates as ‘together, more savings’

However, because it has no warehouses in this country, nor in America or Europe, all the goods have to come from China, which takes time. My products arrived on the eighth day after ordering.

Though this is much slower than Amazon or Argos, it is faster than a boat can arrive from Asia — that’s because Temu air-freights its products.

This is more expensive than making bulk shipments to UK warehouses, but because Temu sends products directly to consumers it exploits a tax loophole.

Any goods worth less than £135 can arrive into the UK tax-free, a rule designed to make it easier for friends and family to send gifts to each other. 

Because nearly all Temu purchases are well under £135, the company (and the shopper) aren’t charged the duty. In contrast, an importer, such as John Lewis buying T-shirts from Asia has to pay import duties of 12 per cent on top of the VAT it then passes to customers.

As Ines Durand, at Similarweb, says: ‘Yes, it is expensive to ship by plane, but they don’t pay tariffs, they don’t have warehouses, they don’t have to pay workers minimum wages.’

So, if Temu is not making any of these products itself, where are they made?

Many experts are concerned they come from factories in Xinjiang province — home to the Muslim Uighur minority group, an estimated one million of whom have been detained in prison and work camps, according to Amnesty International.

‘I don’t think anyone can dispute there is a genocide taking place in the Xinjiang region,’ says Ms Kearns. ‘In fact, Parliament voted that there is one taking place. Temu has no accountability in its supply chain and has reliance on Uighur forced labour’ — something she attributes to its low prices.

Her views were echoed by a U.S. Senate committee, which last year concluded: ‘American consumers should know that there is an extremely high risk that Temu’s supply chains are contaminated with forced labour.’

The U.S. bans imports from Xinjiang, but the Senate report said Temu ‘conducts no audits and reports no compliance system to affirmatively examine’ whether its suppliers are observing U.S. forced labour law.

Temu insists these allegations are ‘completely ungrounded’.

When my goods arrived, each one came with an address label on the back. The perfume came from Shandong Oumanya Biotechnology in Shandong province, China; the plastic bricks toy from Haonanhai Toys Factory in the Shengzhou industrial zone; the felt-tip pens from Dongguan Tersen Electronics in Guangdong province. None from Xinjiang, or so it appears.

Factory savings: Temu was launched in the US in 2022 before coming over to Europe last year, allowing customers to buy directly from factories

Factory savings: Temu was launched in the US in 2022 before coming over to Europe last year, allowing customers to buy directly from factories

Ms Kearns says: ‘There is a lot of evidence of white-washing of labels, whereby products are sent from other parts of China.’

Were my trainers or phone case made in Xinjiang or using forced labour? It’s impossible to say. But that’s the point — reputable retailers spend time and money hiring specialist companies to audit their supply chains. Temu has not allowed any third-party auditors to inspect suppliers’ factories.

On day eight, my goods finally arrived, messily bundled in plastic wrapping. A couple of the boxes were bashed. I expected the goods inside to be just as shonky.

Earlier this year, the consumer group Which? tested various electric heaters. All three bought from Temu sellers were found to be electrically unsafe and could not be sold legally in the UK.

Last month, a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary discovered that a £2.17 silver necklace contained ten times the quantity of lead that UK regulations permit.

Worse, VDE, an electrical product tester and certifier, told the documentary that two pliers being sold by a Temu supplier carrying its name had not been certified by the institute. ‘It was illegal,’ the institute’s Hendrick Schafer said.

If the certificate was incorrect, he explained, ‘the insulation of these handheld tools is maybe not properly done and the result could be an electric shock and, in the worst case, electric shock could lead to death.’ Temu promised to take action against the manufacturer.

Previously, Which? had found listings for batons and folding knives on the site that resembled items banned under UK law.

Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy, said these products raise ‘serious question marks over the checks and monitoring [Temu] is doing on these products and the third-party sellers behind them.

‘Due to shortcomings in current regulations for online marketplaces, companies like Temu can jump to the top of the app charts, with hundreds of millions of downloads, yet they are unlikely to face legal consequences when unsafe products infiltrate their platforms and put consumers at risk.’

Much to my surprise, most of the items I had bought were fine.

Yes, the T-shirt, which I expected to be cotton, was 100 pc polyester, and the digital spoon scale gives readings of dubious accuracy.

The plastic toy-bricks model of the Titanic (£6.48) would disappoint Lego fans. But many of the products were not just of adequate quality, but decent — notably a well-made, stylish LED table lamp costing £19.47 and the desk fan, which was powerful and quiet.

For her part, my wife thinks the ‘Cooc eau de parfum’ — a blatant copycat of Coco Mademoiselle by Chanel — is good enough to wear and, at £5.48, 15 times cheaper than the real thing. True, a ‘vintage’ men’s pleated scarf (£3.48) was clearly made last month, but a friend spotted me wearing it at a party and asked if it was Missoni.

But though I felt pleasantly satisfied at bagging a few eye-catching bargains, I had a nagging sense that, in return, I have handed over address and bank details to a Chinese company with a dire reputation for data privacy. Worse, I could have been complicit in the forced labour of Uighurs.

The Temu spokesman insisted the company is ‘committed to full compliance with the laws and regulations of the markets where we operate. 

We aim not just to meet the minimum legal requirements, but to exceed them by adhering to the highest best practice standards’.

In a cost-of-living crisis, many will be seduced by the bargains on the Temu app. But, as Ms Kearns says: ‘You have a choice of buying cheap and profiting off blood labour, because that is essentially what you are doing.’

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