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Friday, July 12, 2024

Temu Sellers Are Cloning Amazon Storefronts

David has spent the past two and a half years building a top-selling store on Amazon. From his office in Shanghai, China, he sells craft products to customers, most of whom are in the US. He has had to work hard to get to the top of sales rankings. As well as spending big on advertising, he paid to get his products tested by a Swiss company, SGS, which inspects and certifies products, so that he can reassure American customers who are put off by “made in China” products. “It is very costly to generate momentum on Amazon,” he says.

In May, David was browsing through Temu, an ecommerce platform owned by the Chinese tech giant PDD that has grown dramatically since launching in the US last September. He was surprised to find two listings that looked identical to his own best-selling products. The pictures were the same, and the product descriptions used the same keywords.

“I took and edited these photos myself, after spending a lot of time learning photography and photoshop,” says David, who asked that his name be changed because he was worried about retaliation from Temu. “I have used many different photos and did multiple rounds of testing, the product photos I am using now have the best conversion rate.”

The duplicate listings, which WIRED has examined, even list the test certificates from Switzerland—with his company address on them. The versions of the product on Temu are 30 percent cheaper. Over the past month, David’s sales of those two products have fallen by more than 20 percent. He can’t say for sure that the drop is linked to the Temu listings, but he suspects there’s a correlation.

David’s experience is not unique. WIRED has examined dozens of cases in which Amazon sellers from China claim to have found their listings, including product images, descriptions, and “browse trees”—a way to optimize product listings. Many of those claims seem to bear out, with storefronts on Temu using images and text that first appeared on Amazon listings. Those affected say they have complained to Temu and requested that the pictures be taken down, without success.

Temu did not respond to a request for comment. Amazon spokesperson Mira Dix said via email: “We strongly condemn this type of criminal activity. If a brand believes their Amazon product information or images are being copied and used to sell infringing products elsewhere, we encourage them to contact our Counterfeit Crimes Unit.”

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Temu’s business model is based on selling low-cost unbranded goods to price-sensitive consumers. Most of those products are sourced from producers in China, some of whom previously worked with PDD’s Chinese ecommerce platform, Pinduoduo. Temu’s sellers are independent businesses who sell through the platform. An investigation by WIRED in May showed that Temu, which has been trying to break into the US market and compete with Amazon using aggressive discounting, had pressured sellers in its own supply chain to drop their prices to help it undercut rivals.

Selling on ecommerce platforms is not as simple as posting a couple of pictures and a price tag. Sellers often invest quite heavily in high-quality photos, and they experiment with product descriptions, the design of their storefronts, and other information to increase their chances of getting into search rankings and in front of customers.

On Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, and The Little Red Book (xiaohongshu), China’s fashion and lifestyle platform, there are now many accounts of Amazon sellers complaining that they have found exact, or nearly exact, copies of their product listings on Temu. Most either came across their listings by chance, like David, or went looking after they experienced a sudden drop in sales. Several Chinese ecommerce bloggers have also advised Amazon sellers to search for their products on Temu.

“Recently, I found a malicious Temu competitor who sells exactly the same product as mine at a much lower price, the competitor completely copied my product description, and my browse tree,” a blogger who goes by “Mr Ming” wrote on his The Little Red Book page. Mr Ming reported the issue to Amazon customer service, alleging “intellectual property violations.” On the “We Are Sellers” site, a forum widely used by ecommerce entrepreneurs, people have been reporting the same issue for a while. A typical post published on Jun 11 reads “Pictures on Temu are completely copied. Is there a way to complain and get Temu to remove these pictures?”

To see if this kind of behaviour is common, I got in touch with a Temu seller, who asked only to be identified by her surname, Yu, to avoid a backlash from the company. She is a member of several WeChat groups where sellers swap tips and advice. One common tactic, she says, is to go through the bestseller ranks under different categories on Amazon, and then see if any manufacturers can make the same items at a lower price. “If you can find one item that gets popular on Temu, you can make a lot of money with the current popularity Temu has,” Yu says, adding that she has only used Amazon listings for reference and never copied anything.

Most Amazon store owners who have found their images and descriptions ripped off by Temu sellers aren’t sure how to react. Penny—a friend of David who also asked for anonymity—has found multiple Temu listings using images of her products, which she paid a professional to take. The Temu versions of her products are listed at half the price of the originals, and Penny has seen a drastic decline in sales. She hasn’t filed a complaint with Temu—it’s “too troublesome,” she says—because she believes that Amazon is going to deal with the problem on behalf of its sellers.

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Amazon sellers have had their own problems with alleged intellectual property violations. Multiple lawsuits have been filed in the US against Amazon sellers in China, alleging infringement of trademarks, including the word “airbag.” Amazon has issued guidelines in Chinese to educate sellers on how to avoid copyright infringement.

Lots of Amazon sellers are simply too busy dealing with inventory management, customer service, logistics, and other daily operational issues to go after Temu copycats. But David doesn’t want to just let it go.

“These Temu sellers are stealing other people’s information, making false advertisements, and hurting the interests of consumers,” he says.

He has spent hours researching laws and regulations, gathering information, translating Chinese content into English, and consulting lawyers. He has complained to Temu multiple times, receiving similar responses on each occasion: Temu said it couldn’t act because it couldn’t verify David’s ownership of the images and text, and asked for more information. WIRED examined David’s correspondence with Temu, as well as a legal opinion from a lawyer he consulted on the matter. The lawyer told David that he was sure the images on Temu had infringed his copyright, based on the fact that David has a registered trademark. The lawyer’s opinion was that David had provided enough information to Temu and that the company’s requests for more were “purely a delay and frustration tactic.”

The duplicate content is still on Temu.

Some larger Amazon sellers have already started legal proceedings against Temu. In May, the owner of FitBeast, an exercise equipment brand, sued Temu for copyright infringement in a US District Court in the Northern District of Illinois. Reuters reported that Temu was selling a copy of FitBeast’s exercise equipment for $5 on its website, while one FitBeast sells for $25.99 on Amazon. In April, Chinese manufacturer Shenzhen Kangmingcheng Technology sued Temu for trademark infringement, alleging that Temu carries a copy of its Hicober-branded hair towel, on sale for $5.99. On Amazon, the original sells for $29.99.

In May, Wham-O Holding, owner of the “Frisbee” trademark, sued a number of Chinese Temu sellers who used “frisbee” in their listings for trademark infringement. It was reported by Chinese news website Sohu that around 5,000 Temu sellers later had their accounts and funds temporarily locked. On Douyin, sellers complained in many cases, Temu actually wrote product descriptions on behalf of sellers. Now, a quick search of Temu doesn’t bring up any items described as frisbees. Instead, there are hundreds of listings now selling “flying discs.” The case is still ongoing.

Besides these IP infringement lawsuits, Temu is also currently involved in a legal dispute with its Chinese rival Shein, a low-cost “fast fashion” retailer that has also grown rapidly in the US. Last December, Shein filed a lawsuit in the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging that Temu engaged in improper marketing practices. Temu has denied the allegations.

David is now considering hiring an attorney in Los Angeles to initiate legal action against Temu. But he admits it might be too costly.“For us small sellers, taking legal action and suing Temu in a foreign country requires a lot of time, energy, and resources. We might not be able to afford it. We might have to give in to pressure,” he says. Instead, he’s hoping that Amazon will go to bat for its sellers. “It would be great if Amazon can help us small sellers,” he says. “They must have more resources.”

CORRECTION: Updated 4:30 ET to include Amazon statement.

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