Mail-order tea originated two centuries ago but the arrival of online tea shops and marketplaces like Amazon make it a billion dollar business accounting for 10% of sales at typical brick and mortar ventures. Major chains with sophisticated websites like Teavana and DAVIDsTEA report that online purchases approach 20% of sales.
Amazon currently offers a daunting 1 million tea products for sale, many by leading suppliers, resulting in far too many choices for the average consumer. That is precisely the problem innovative retailers hope to alleviate.
Tea discovery becomes critical as selections increase. Some companies have introduced digital “discovery engines” but these are primitive at best. Typing in your preferences at a site like Turvani points to Turvani’s teas. Steepster, an online community of tea drinkers with thousands of searchable reviews serves as a discovery engine but critics point out that the online journal features “a rather endless stream of reviews on the site that is more than overwhelming.”
Teabox, the Siliguri-based tea supplier, decides for you what teas to place in their monthly shipment. Subscribers, who pay $20 a month, state a preference, often beginning with a starter box offering broad selections. Subscribers gradually refine their taste through sampling. Teabox responds by narrowing its selections to specific origins and categories of tea.
In Vancouver, Canada, Tea Sparrow’s Michael Menashy and his team of tea connoisseurs and sommeliers taste dozens of teas each month, “with no affiliation to blenders, and chose the blends that inspire us most to share with you.” The teas are scored for appearance, region, aroma and taste, he explains.
“We take pride in delivering a variety of world-class blends to your door every month – we feel we deserve it, and so do you!” he said.
Curated collections like Teavana’s Tea of the Month Club let tea buyers select a category. In April subscribers received 4 ounces of Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearls Green Tea and two 2 oz. bags of tea to compliment the selection. Including samples increases the likelihood customers will purchase larger quantities.
Since tea retailers inventory a large selection, typically 150 to 300 teas, their websites are the best resource. Lengthy product descriptions, travel articles, video, blogs and tasting notes assist in the discovery process and with small samples available, hopefully bring customers to give featured teas a try. Sites like Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas (www.sevencups.com) produce a tremendous amount of informative content.
Retailers like TWG in Singapore offer 1,000 teas to insure that customers will eventually stumble across a tea they favor, rewarding the retailer with a lifetime of re-orders. But tea discovery industry-wide is happenstance, limited to mail-order sampling and infrequent in-person tastings.
Since tea shops are relatively few in number mall-based ventures like DAVIDsTEA and Teavana and their small-chain local competitors continue to have the greatest influence in the discovery process.