In recent months I have been exploring the world of cross-border e-commerce from China. Many Chinese internet companies like Alibaba and JD.com have cranked up their efforts in the international market, now that their home market is getting saturated and the Chinese economy is stumbling. New policies by the Chinese government, emphasising the need for internet platforms to help Chinese factories and merchants sell to international consumers, have nudged them along. Not all initiatives have been equally successful though. While fast fashion e-tailer Shein has become one of the biggest start-ups in the world, Bytedance struggles to replicate its e-commerce success in the Chinese app Douyin in its overseas version TikTok. But one thing is clear: the international market and direct sales from Chinese merchants and factories to the west has become a focus strategy for many of China’s internet companies. And lo and behold: on September 1st, Pinduoduo, China’s third largest e-commerce company, just launched a brand new cross-border e-commerce website in the US.
Pinduoduo (PDD), founded in 2015, has always focussed on China’s domestic market, most notably the smaller cities and rural areas of China. Its model consist of aggregating demand (link in Dutch) for Chinese manufacturers by offering dirt-cheap products to Chinese consumers that form groups in the Pinduoduo app (link in Dutch). This has proven a successful match among consumers with lower disposable income. In 2021, PDD even temporarily surpassed market leader Alibaba in the number of actively buying customers. Don’t be fooled though, the value of the small but frequent orders an average consumer places on PDD doesn’t come close to what an average consumer spends on Alibaba’s Tmall and Taobao.
PDD does however have a much higher ‘stickiness’; compared to other pure player e-commerce apps it has the highest ratio of daily to monthly users that open the app. PDD has 830 million monthly active users (MAU), 400 million of which open the app every day. Impressive, though the tactic through which this is realised is less admirable. PDD offers mirate micro-rewards to consumers that log in multiple times a day and waste time gaining such incentives by endlessly scrolling through products. Last year I wrote a series of articles on these Sisyphean tasks of Pinduoduo’s gamification.
On August 17th (link in Chinese) LatePost reported that PDD would launch an e-commerce platform in the US in September. PDD chose the US market because competition in Southeast Asia, a region often chosen by its competitors, is fierce. Also, the e-commerce penetration in the US remained limited compared to China (14% and 25% respectively in 2021), but was growing strongly as an effect of the Covid crisis.
What’s in a name?
The name of PDD’s new e-commerce site and corresponding App is Temu. The meaning and pronunciation was unclear to me until I came across the description on the app’s download page in the Google Play store. Team Up, Price Down! it said. You can sort of form the name ‘Temu’ from the first two words.
The strange thing is that ‘team up, price down’ echoes the company’s Chinese name Pinduoduo, which means as much as ‘together more and more’ (discount). A text on the website even says:”We believe that great things can happen when we come together as a team.” This would imply that Temu would also be a group-buying platform. Considering PPD’s unique group-buying approach, which in recent years has been copied by Alibaba (Taote) and JD (Jingxi), I wondered if we would now see this business model arrive in western markets.
But none of PDD’s familiar group-buying functionality can be found in the app or site when Pinduoduo’s cross-border initiative was launched on September 1st. Instead Temu proves to be more of a Shein copycat than a rollout of PDD’s own business model. Like Shein, Temu is clearly targeting young women with its brand and website and is, just like Alibaba’s website Allylikes, little more than a Shein clone.
There is a big difference between Temu and Shein though. Shein is basically an e-tailer, using hundreds of OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) and ODM (Original Design Manufacturer) suppliers to manufacture items and deliver them to a central warehouse in Foshan, from where Shein ships orders around the world. Temu, on the other hand, seems to be a marketplace. The About Us page of the website even mentions: “We’re committed to enabling small and mid-sized merchants to realise their growth potential. Drawing on our extensive supply chain and technology, we are creating a new and vibrant community connecting our shoppers and merchants.”
On the website and in the app, you can view items per category, but when clicking on an item you can also view all products by the concerned merchant and even follow specific merchants.
You can also chat with the merchants, which I tried in the app. I clicked on a chat on a specific product page and asked a question about that product. I got a reaction within a few minutes but was asked to specify the product. I had to return to the product page to copy the product name and paste it in the chat (I had expected that information to be visible to the merchant since the chat originated from that product page). I was then told to wait a moment while they looked for the information. The communication was pleasant and in proper English, but the answer did take more than 18 hours to arrive and still left me in doubt.
According to LatePost (link in Chinese), PDD’s cross-border project was first considered as a new growth strategy in January 2022 and the project was officially launched in May this year. PDD staff were sent to Europe and the US to do market research and learn about local consumer habits and logistics. In June PDD had internal meetings on product categories and outsourcing of logistics. A 80 person supply chain team was established in Guangzhou, but according to LatePost there is no other dedicated cross-border team yet.
The Temu Facebook page has been operational since August 14th.
These timelines are impressive and definitely reflect the speed with which Chinese internet companies implement things. But as we’ve seen with other Chinese cross-border initiatives like Ochama, there is a clear downside to this speed. It often comes with a lack of proper localisation and a lot of sloppiness, as becomes clear when trying out the website.
Trying out the site and app
The first thing I did after opening the Temu website was create an account. I noticed how there was no double opt-in verification that is a standard in the west; you don’t have to click a link in a registration e-mail to prove it’s your e-mail address. You are immediately registered after entering an e-mail address and password. This could potentially lead to abuse of other people’s e-mail addresses.
Instead of the common registration e-mail you immediately get a welcome e-mail. And if first impressions count, Temu doesn’t do a very good job.
Let me zoom in a bit for you:
Okay, so I get 20% discount and a maximum of $20 on my first order. Remarkably enough, a day later the discount had increased to 30%. Temu had also dropped the shipping costs from September 2nd to 6th.
The new user coupon mentioned in the e-mail wasn’t shown in a dedicated section of my account, but when I tried to add it manually I was told I already had this coupon.
Although it did not appear in the coupon code menu, it was added to a test order I created.
The whole coupon situation got even more confusing when I got a pop-up with three seemingly identical coupons in the app. In the app I discovered I had somehow gathered no less than 4 new user coupons. I wondered if I could use these on multiple orders. After all, you can only have one first order, so why hand out four such coupons?
Let’s have another look at the welcome e-mail. The bottom of the e-mail looked like this:
Clicking on the Facebook link led me to a webpage full of code:
The Twitter and Instagram links worked fine though.
While Shein originally started with just apparel products, it has recently been adding new product categories like pet products, home decoration, bed linen, and more. Temu immediately kicked off with a wide assortment, much of which mirror’s Shein. The main categories are: Jewelry & Accessories, Women’s Clothing, Shoes & Bags, Kids’ Fashion, Pet Supplies, Beauty & Health, Baby Products, Home & Garden, Sports & Outdoors, Underwear & Sleepwear, Electronics, Men’s Clothing, Office Products and the appealingly named Industrial.
At its launch on September 1st, each of Temu’s 14 product categories had a very limited selection of items, especially compared to Shein’s extensive assortment. In the days following the launch the number of items was steadily increasing, but Temu does need to shift gear since their About Us page promises “Whatever you’re in the mood for, you’ll find fresh and exciting products that we’ve curated for you from around the world. (..) Rediscover the joy and thrill of shopping with thousands of new products added daily!” According to TechPlanet (TechPlanet), many merchants that have been recruited to sell on Temu were still waiting to have their stores operational.
Without a doubt Pinduoduo can use its extensive network of Chinese manufacturers to fill its virtual shelves. According to Pingwest the supply chain connections of Pinduoduo result in prices that are even lower than those on Shein.
PDD has been attracting merchants to join the Temu platform by wavering the set-up fee and commission (for now). A common tactic to new platforms introduced by Chinese internet companies.
Despite the limited number of SKUs, some problematic items did slip through Temu’s quality control. LatePost reported how Temu showed an item that had a Shein label attached to it. Most likely this was sold by a merchant that also supplied items to Shein.
When I tried to add 10 identical dresses and 10 identical shirts to my shopping cart they were capped at quantities of 5 and 4 respectively. Either Temu is trying to keep people from buying in bulk and reselling it for higher prices or the stock on some items is really limited. Some items were shown to already be sold out. Prices of focus items on the homescreen also showed incorrect number formats.
The delivery time to US customers promised by Temu is 15 days. Shein promises 8-12 days. Even though LatePost claimed that PDD would be using a designated domestic warehouse, orders that are now placed on Temu get split (link in Chinese) into separate orders and seemed to be shipped by individual merchants selling on Temu.
Like Shein, Temu offers free shipping for orders above $49 ($2,99 shipping for smaller orders, compared to $3,99 with Shein) and free returns, although the text on the website mentions ‘for your first return order for every order’. If you return another item from the same order, $7.99 will be deducted from your refund.
Temu App UX
The Temu app uses the same e-commerce template as most Chinese e-commerce apps. In the product search screen the categories use up the left side of the screen, while products are shown on the right side. This is something that works well in the Chinese language (where product categories only take up a few characters), but is a much less pleasant amd very unfamiliar user experience in western languages. We’ve seen the same problem in JD.com’s Ochama app when it launched in The Netherlands. A serious lack of localization.
From left to right: Chinese e-commerce app (7Fresh), Temu and Ochama.
The selections behind the homescreen banners don’t really seem to work well. When clicking on ‘shop men’ only the top rows of products show items for men while a short scroll results in screens of female clothing and dog jackets.
Is this really Pinduoduo?
There is no clear sign on the Temu website and app that this is a PDD initiative. The e-mails and website give the correspondence address of Temu as Whaleco Inc., 8 The Green Suite #12868, Dover, DE 19901. This is probably a letterbox company in a house as well-maintained as Temu’s welcome e-mail.
According to LatePost, Whaleco Inc is a US company owned by PDD. TechPlanet reported that the registrant address for Temu is No. 533 Loushanguan Road, Changning District, Shanghai, a modern office building which houses PDD’s headquarter on the 29th floor. Merchants that join Temu also use the ‘Pinduoduo Cross-Border Seller Center’ (kuajing.pinduoduo.com) to set-up their stores.
Will Temu succeed?
Judging from the platform at the time of launch, there is little that differentiates Temu from competitors like Shein and AliExpress (Alibaba) that have been active in western markets with varying levels of success for many years.
But Temu isn’t the first cross-border e-commerce venture in the PDD legacy, as LatePost recently reported (link in Chinese). Like competitor Shein, PDD founder Colin Huang and other PDD managers have been active in selling wedding dresses abroad (JJsHouse.com), a fast-fashion company second only to Shein in 2017 (Mocan, with brands Floryday, Azazie and Vova) and even an overseas gaming company (Youta). According to LatePost the PDD executives remain good friends with some of their former business partners in these companies. If PDD can and will tap into this cross-border experience is unclear, and TechPlanet reports (link in Chinese) that the team currently working on Temu at PDD has little experience in cross-border e-commerce.
Besides experience and being late to the party Temu has some other challenges as reported by LatePost (link in Chinese). Logistical costs are much higher overseas than in China. For Amazon it accounts for 27% of sales, while it only accounts for 6% of JD.com’s. The average cost of express delivery in the US is $12, which is why Shein has a minimum order value of $49 for free shipping. Temu is using the same minimum order value. One of Shein’s success factors is the use of advertising on western social media to acquire customers. The costs per sales of such advertising in the US and Europe has increased to an estimated $20 in recent years. That’s a high cost of acquisition for a thin-margin business as Temu’s.
In the meantime, Temu will not only compete with Shein, Alibaba and other Chinese platforms that are starting to flood the western markets, it also competes with Amazon.com, which has an estimated one million active Chinese merchants. Some of their products ship from Amazon warehouses in the US and therefore can’t only offer sharp pricing, but also faster delivery. It remains to be seen if the copycat approach of PDD can win over any western consumers or even get on their radars at all.