In late February, a delegation of tea producers and traders from the China Tea Marketing Association made a trip to Paris to check out the French market for their products. Tea consultant Barbara Dufrene, who welcomed them, filed this report following the visit.
Many people in the world of tea share the view that the French tea market has developed into one of the most refined and exclusive ones among consumer countries. “Definitely worth a visit” was what the CTMA concluded after its recent visit.
Following some worries about timely issued visas, the group of 17 delegates arrived in Paris just after the Chinese spring festival holiday week. The delegation included top management of eight tea production companies from Fujian, Hunan, Henan and Yunnan, as well as tea trading companies located in Beijing. CTMA Executive Vice Chairman Wang Qing, led the delegation, assisted by CTMA Secretary General Wu Xiduan and Membership Director Yao Jingbo.
The French Tea Committee asked me to assist with the preparatory arrangements, and Olivier Scala, current chairman of the committee, extended an invitation for an informal appointment at his new tea house, Thés George Cannon (“George Cannon Teas”), which opened in April.
Scala welcomed the CTMA delegation warmly and, after the ritual name card exchange, we sat down to discuss several agenda items. The ensuing discussion allowed us to formulate several important points:
The need to focus on the high-value premium tea market niche and not on the mainstream market. It was made clear that fine teas from China have a high reputation in France with a very large choice and assortment available to increasingly knowledgeable consumers.
Generating consumer awareness. In order to further increase demand for premium teas among consumers, more product and marketing information would be greatly appreciated.
Lack of feedback. European tea importers quite often had difficulties obtaining appropriate follow-up from their Chinese suppliers, such as product samples, price details and reliable product data. This created substantial difficulties and was an obstacle to trade. Sometimes premium teas could not be properly sourced; hence, a loss of sales and unhappy customers.
Organic and sustainable teas. These are increasingly popular among consumers, and demand for such teas is on the rise in spite of the higher price.
The representatives of the Chinese tea industry said their main concern was how to make sure EU consumers pay the “correct high price” for premium pickings of rare teas.
This is precisely the issue meant to be addressed by increased image- and brand-building. Effective marketing, public relations and product communication are needed to address the French consumer’s lack of awareness about the refinement and rarity of premium cups.
During the discussion, the often quoted and commonly accepted comparison with vintage French wines was recalled. In France, a rare bottle can fetch tremendously high prices, and there are enough affluent customers to purchase them. The same will apply to premium and vintage teas once the public has been educated to recognize their value. Sellers can use the same framework of appreciation criteria, but the image of fine teas needs to be built up as product specific.
In support of these arguments, Scala recalled that “top quality leaf teas from China were introduced to the French market in the mid 1980s, which is just about 25 years ago. My own company’s sourcing plan 10 years ago contained a selection of 10 premium teas with a wholesales price of above $100 per kilo, but today I am sourcing more than 50 of these high end teas, of which the vast majority (35) come from China, and the remainder from Japan and India .”
The CTMA delegation noted with satisfaction Scala’s confirmation of an upward trend, albeit slowed down by the global economic crisis.
The meeting participants concluded that there is considerable potential for upgraded and increased consumption of premium Chinese teas; however, more detailed and higher quality communication about Chinese teas and Chinese tea culture should be relayed to European consumers.
In order to facilitate communication and follow up between European tea buyers and Chinese suppliers, the CTMA’s Wang declared his willingness to make “some good CTMA services” available upon request.
Scala replied with his approval for this initiative, offering “operational assistance” for bridging any future counter-productive trade relation gaps. This, he noted, would be an important step for improving cooperation and increasing sales to the French and other EU tea markets.