Online Retail: Tech to Travel to Tea

Andy Hayes started his career working in the information technology sector. This would seem a solid foundation for turning his childhood hobby of producing a magazine into an online business. WTN150511__PlumDeluxe_Andy Hayes_480x274Only, with the tools for online publishing changing rapidly and no obvious model for the success of running an advertiser-supported blog, Hayes made some mistakes. Determined to find a way to make it work, he found the winning ingredient: tea.

Why Tea?

Plum Deluxe first operated as an online lifestyle magazine. Hayes struggled to find sponsors who shared the same values now epitomized in the Plum Deluxe brand motto: Making moments matter.

That phrase is no empty tagline. Hayes chose to model his present endeavors on how his mother lived out the final years of her life. He watched her find enjoyment in travel, spa days, and spending time with friends and family even as she engaged in a fight against cancer.

As more sponsorships were introduced to the blog, readers asked why Plum Deluxe was not selling products directly. Hayes said, “I decided that was a good question, and set out to find just the right thing for us. Tea seemed perfect – it’s a beverage that has an ethos of slowing down and creating mindful connection, which is what the Plum Deluxe philosophy is all about.”

Hayes discovered that ethos while living in the Netherlands. While there, he spent Sunday mornings exploring a new tea which he then drank the rest of the week. Those seminal exposures to the fruit and mint teas prized by the Dutch inspired the tea of the month club.

Plum Deluxe contributors continue to write stories pegged to personal growth, travel tips, and recipe roundups. Though content is still part of the overall business model, expertise in content marketing did not mean starting to sell tea would be easy. Hayes needed to learn about the business side of sourcing, blending, and shipping teas.

Tea Transition Challenges

The first obstacle Hayes faced was establishing his own relationships with tea suppliers.


He spent a lot of time looking for packaging, tea, herbs, and other materials that fit the high quality brand he was intent on maintaining.

Hayes said, “I have come into the tea industry as an outsider. I’ve been very lucky along way to find mentors at just the right moments that helped teach me everything I needed to know about tea, ecommerce, and being in the product business.”

It took him three months working with one such mentor to learn how to blend teas. Hayes also needed to figure out the right mix of marketing strategy and tactics—how best to incorporate teas into his existing online platform. Pivoting into a new line of business when you have fans and followers each numbering in the thousands on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest is risky.

Hayes also noted hitting upon the price his customers are willing to pay has not been easy. He has been both praised and criticized for the $7 per ounce he charges.

He seems to be taking that in stride, noting “What’s interesting is that in some of the online reviews from bloggers and influencers, I have seen everything from ‘very reasonably priced’ to ‘almost double what other retailers charged.’ It’s a good reminder that price is relative!”

Success through Iteration

He and his team are taking an experimental approach. That did not mean starting with no idea who his customers would be, however.


“Because Plum Deluxe has existed for many years, I have a very clear idea of who our customer is, what she spends her money on, and what is important to her,” explained Hayes.

Plum Deluxe first offered teas to an invitation-only group in July of 2014. Now, Hayes’ team uses grassroots techniques, like sending tea samples to bloggers and community members who host tea parties, to find new customers.

Hayes said, “I’m a big believer in getting your product to market quickly and iterating quickly – let your customers help guide you.”

Some tactics he tried worked well, too well. Plum Deluxe sold out of pumpkin spice tea three times in one month last fall. Others fall flat, like the raw hot cocoa mix sold as a Valentine’s Day promotion.

Though Hayes may stumble a few more times as his tea business grows, he is well on the way to meeting one measure of success he set for himself. He wants tea-of-the-month subscribers in all 50 states. In the past six weeks, Plum Deluxe gained subscribers from eight more states bringing the current total to 34.

Learn more at Plum Deluxe:

Profiles / New Products, Tea Retailer Profiles

About Jenny Neill

Jenny Neill, a beverage writer based in Seattle, Wash., applies her lifelong sense of wonder and her fascination with sensory details, scientific inquiry, and cultural context to writing about tea, coffee, wine, and cocktails. She has also worked as an editor, proofreader, instructional designer, and health content architect.