Friday, May 25, 2012

Tea Companies: Choosing Which Teas To Sell

This post is oriented towards tea companies, small and large, and is about how to choose which teas to sell. I offer three points of advice:

  • When you have a small catalogue, avoid teas too similar to each other.
  • Carry a few products that make you stand out.
  • Focus first on quality and relevance to your audience.

When you have a small catalogue, avoid teas too similar to each other:

One mistake that I see a lot of companies make is selling teas that are too similar to each other. This sort of thing can happen both with companies with a huge catalogue and those with a very small catalogue. For an example of a company with a small catalogue that has some very similar teas, take Novus Tea. Novus is a high-end brand owned by Bigelow tea, which sells packaged whole-leaf tea in pyramid sachets.

Novus only has 14 offerings, yet there are a couple of their teas and herbal teas that I personally find to be very similar to each other. For a few examples, both their Persian Pomegranate Herbal Tea and Wild Encounter Herb Tea are fruity herbal blends with a red color and sour flavor. Another example is that they sell four distinct pure black teas: a Darjeeling, a South Indian Black Tea, and both a caffeinated and decaf version of a Ceylon tea. I personally think they would do well to reduce one or two of these duplicates, and instead add something not covered, like a Rooibos, an oolong, or an herbal tea with a radically different flavor, like tulsi / holy basil.

As usual, I'm picking on Novus because I like them. I've been consistently impressed by their teas; the only teas of theirs that I am not a fan of are ones that are in a style that I tend to not like...such as the sour herbal blends. It may not make sense for Novus to adjust their catalogue now. If the teas are selling well, they probably already have their loyal fans, and it might do more damage to retire them even if the newer configuration were more optimal. But I find this principle can be very helpful when considering teas to carry in the first place.

Carry a few products that make you stand out:

Although it can be risky from a business perspective to make your entire catalogue consist of "unusual" offerings, carrying a few teas that are hard to find, and are not well-represented in the market in your country, can make you stand out. These offerings can draw in new customers who have never purchased tea from your brand before, because they will be looking for a specific type of tea. They can also keep customers loyal to you, if someone finds they like a particular kind of tea and you are the only company or only one of a few that sells it.

A few examples of this are:

  • Upton Tea Imports stands out by offering pure teas from unusual regions, regions whose single-origin teas are not typically available in the west. They also carry a few herbs that are hard to find, like Lemon Myrtle. And they are one of the few companies to sell tea flowers, along with Rishi Tea and the Taste of Tea.
  • Rishi Tea stands out as being the only source of fair trade certified teas of certain varieties. Want Fair Trade Yellow tea? Rishi is, to my knowledge, the only source. They are one of a few companies offering fair trade Keemun (see Little Red Cup) and fair trade Dian Hong / Yunnan black tea (also see Arbor Teas, Octavia Tea, and Cha Cha tea, although Rishi still has the most offerings).
  • Numi Tea and Republic of Tea are, to my knowledge, the only companies to sell green rooibos in tea bags; both are organic certified.
  • Carrying an esoteric offering, like an oolong produced in Japan, Indonesia, or Kenya, or a white tea produced in Taiwan, Tanzania, Bangladesh, or any tea produced in the United States, will instantly set you apart. Keep in mind though, don't carry these just to carry them, make sure you're selling a top-notch tea.

Focus first on quality and relevance to your audience:

You may feel compelled to add a particular tea because it seems interesting, or seems to fill a gap in your catalogue, but remember, these factors are small relative to quality and relevance to your audience. Quality goes without saying: it is never worth compromising your quality standards just because a tea looks or sounds interesting.

Appealing to your audience can be more involved. For example, certain oolong teas from Nepal or Darjeeling may seem interesting and may even be top-notch if prepared properly, but if a particular tea is picky about brewing, and if your customers are primarily used to easy-to-brew Chinese or Taiwanese oolongs, you may disappoint your customers with such a tea. Another such tip would be, if your customers are used to darker, bolder-flavored teas, I'd recommend avoiding silver needle, and instead stocking a more robust white tea like bai mu dan or shou mei, or, if you do want to sell silver needle, locate a particularly robust example of it (Teas Etc's Tanzanian Silver Needle impressed me in this regard).