Scheming Shopping Sprees

The controversial app Temu has garnered attention across the Stuyvesant student body. Students were asked about their experience with the app, and their thoughts about its implications.

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By Vanessa Huang

That mysterious invite link in your inbox beckoning you to download something called Temu may have seemed sketchy at first, but perhaps the shopping app’s promise to let you “shop like a billionaire” won you over. After all, Temu boasts over 24 million downloads worldwide and has become especially popular amongst teenagers since its September 2022 release. The app has made waves across social media by allowing users to purchase a variety of items for low prices; in some cases, it even lets users play in-app games to earn spendable cash points. “In the two months [spent using Temu], I racked up about $600 from the [games] alone. I never spent a penny of my own money,” sophomore and former Temu user Michelle Ye said.

Temu allows users to browse a limitless product catalog, including clothing, accessories, beauty products, and even electronics. Despite the app’s suspiciously low prices and seemingly endless inventory—the result of low-cost fast-fashion manufacturers—Stuyvesant student Temu customers have noted that the products arrive as advertised. “I got a pair of cargos for free. I like them, and they are pretty comfortable and look like what the app showed, so I was low-key happy to get them for free,” explained sophomore Mahmuda Meher, who used the app for around a week. When approaching an app with remarkably low prices, students’ expectations for the products can influence their overall appraisal of it.

A common experience of Stuyvesant Temu users is their gradual loss of interest in the app. Ultimately, they end up deleting the app indefinitely. “I stopped using it because sending links and getting people to download it got really time-consuming and annoying, and if someone already has the app, it won’t give you a reward,” Meher said. Due to the difficulty of finding new Temu users to sign up, many grow weary at such a tedious stage of the process.

Though Temu’s products are legitimate, the company faces ethical concerns. Some consumers question the environmental impact of the packaging and shipping process at Temu’s factories, while others condemn Temu on the assumption that the app is a pyramid scheme. This suspicion originates from Temu’s cycle of consumerism that entails having customers refer others to use the app through the simple click of a link. “Apps like Temu encourage users to purchase items for cheap prices, enticing consumers to stay on the platform, without taking into perspective the labor practices or environmental effects of such purchases,” sophomore Konstantine Konstantopolous said. Their qualms are supported by various investigations, including one revealing the deaths of two employees of Pinduoduo, Temu’s sister e-commerce company. This controversy has been met with criticism over the morality of the work culture at demanding e-commerce companies, especially at prominent ones such as Temu. However, as its user base grows, Temu continues to climb the digital rankings on the app store, reaching #1 in the shopping category and surpassing giants such as Amazon and eBay.

If Temu’s prices are inexhaustibly discounted, how does the app gain profit without going bankrupt? The answer lies in the company’s reverse-manufacturing business model, which, in addition to stock market earnings, garners the majority of its profits. Temu uses this economic strategy to effectively eliminate the markup fees responsible for driving up product prices on other platforms. By connecting its users directly to manufacturers, the company is able to maintain extremely low prices while ensuring that high-quality products are shipped to consumers, all while it continues to profit immensely. While many companies have used this business model in the past, Temu is one of the first platforms to have successfully integrated it on a global scale. It also draws users in through its numerous discounts and suspiciously appealing prices, along with its easy-to-navigate interface. “Temu definitely manipulates consumers with its menu screen. [It] does this by setting their products’ [original prices] higher and adding a discount from 50 percent to 90 percent. For example, currently, the Lenovo Thinkplus th30 on Temu is set at $45 with a 62 percent discount that sets it to $17. It makes the user think that they are getting a good deal, but if you were to check Walmart, it is set at $16.50. Temu is cheap, but it isn’t as cheap as it might appear,” Ye said.

Temu’s popularity cannot be analyzed without considering the role played by consumer culture, especially hyperconsumerism—the overconsumption of goods beyond personal necessity as a result of external pressure to consume such goods. For the average consumer, Temu’s low prices, large variety of products, high-quality goods, and overall convenience are appealing. Through its reward-based system, Temu has also been able to grow a large consumer base backed by manufacturers around the world. “Of course, a very big part of Temu’s [success] is its advertising and the spreading of information from one consumer to another. Personally, I invited and introduced Temu to about 100 people. A lot of people thought I was hacked because of how sketchy Temu makes their link, but a few actually end up following the cycle to invite others they know for their $50. This chain effect can be more effective than traditional advertising. One user can turn into 1,000 just in [a] matter of hours where both the consumer and company benefits,” Ye said. Marketing campaigns that promote free products and rewards through a referral system have driven many users to download Temu, making it one of most popular digital shopping platforms in the world; evidence of its pervasiveness is found even in the halls of Stuyvesant.

Despite the appeal of free merchandise and limitless rewards, the polarizing popularity of Temu begs the question: is the app worth downloading? While its financial allure remains effective for all consumer demographics, the lack of transparency between Temu and its users has deprived them of trust and confidence in the app’s legitimacy. “I originally downloaded Temu after a couple of my classmates were asking me to use their referral code to earn them rewards. After I downloaded the app, I was concerned about the legitimacy of the app and the low prices, so I eventually ended up deleting Temu entirely,” explained junior Trystan Woutersz. For many students like Woutersz, the enticing advertisements and deals are not enough to clear the controversy surrounding Temu. With other apps such as TikTok undergoing political scrutiny, only time will tell as to whether Temu’s overwhelming presence within the U.S. market will remain.