Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ideal Tea Sample Sizes: How Small, How Large?

This post explores the question of what the ideal sample size is to offer to a customer. Hopefully, it will be useful both to potential shoppers as well as to tea companies.

Pictured here are some different samples I have received recently:

Some samples also arrive in tins, although these are not pictured. In a later post I plan to talk more about the type of containers used for samples, but for now, I want to focus on one thing: the size of the sample. It is evident from the picture above that there is a fair difference in size of different samples. Keep in mind, the size difference can be even larger than the picture suggests, because different amounts of leaf occupy different amounts of space. The brown package contains a tiny amount of loosely-packed oolong, whereas the tiny vacuum pack in the back (which weighs much more) contains a much larger amount of tightly-rolled oolong.

Why are samples useful?

If you are a business, the value of offering samples is immense. In case it's not glaringly obvious, offering small sample sizes of each of your teas is a way to help your customers to discover which teas they like, while minimizing the risk of the customer making big purchases that they are unhappy with. The last thing you want is a customer to sink a large amount of money into a purchase that they find out that they do not enjoy. If, on the other hand, the customer purchases several samples and does not like one of them, the loss is relatively small, and the customer has gained useful information.

What is an ideal sample size?

In my opinion, the ideal sample size is small enough that there is not much waste if the customer does not like the tea and large enough to try the tea several times and experiment with brewing.

I have seen sample sizes ranging from 2 grams to 1 ounce (a little over 28 grams). 2 grams is, in my opinion, much too small, as it is only enough to brew a single cup of tea, Western-style. Such a small sample size does not allow for repeated sampling and thus does not allow for any experimentation with brewing. Gong fu brewing, of course, is out of the question.

28 grams, on the other hand, is too big. Fortunately, I have lucked out in my purchases, and all 1-ounce samples I have ordered have been quite enjoyable to me. Sometimes it can take me time to acquire a taste for a tea, but in most cases, if I've brewed a tea three or more times, over a week or more, and I still fail to appreciate it, I probably am not going to like it at all, and the remainder of the sample is wasted unless I can find someone else who likes it.

I think 15 grams, or a little over half an ounce, is a sweet spot for me, in terms of sample size. This allows for 6 or more Western-style brewings, or for 1-2 Gong Fu brewings, with leaf left over if only done once. Being able to experiment with different styles of brewing helps me to really understand the tea.

Sample Pricing:

The size of tea samples is closely related to pricing. For inexpensive teas, especially with smaller samples, the cost of packing and labelling the sample is probably going to be larger than the cost of the tea itself.

For pricey teas and larger samples, the cost of the tea becomes significant. This phenomenon is very clearly evident in the catalog of Upton Tea Imports, which has a minimum sample size of $1 for 15 grams, and many teas with this price point, but also many teas which go much higher, including for smaller samples (the priciest I've seen from them was $8 for 2 grams).

My recommendation to companies is to price your samples as low as you can without losing money or undercutting the price of the next-largest quantity after the sample. Why? Samples are a great way to bring in new customers, and they prevent existing customers from ending up with teas they are not happy with. You might say: "But what about people who just like sampling you, Alex? Won't they put us out of business?" First of all, I said as low as you can without losing money. But I also want to point out that the people, like me, who order obscene numbers of samples and then never order those teas again, are the people who really think about tea. I may never re-order the vast majority of teas I sample, but I write about each one of them online, and often talk about them with my friends. By catering to the sampling crowd, you get free advertisement.

What do you think?

If you are a tea drinker, what is your ideal sample size when you are looking to try new teas? How often do you order samples, and how big a factor is sample size in choosing whether or not to buy from a company?

And if you work for or own a tea company, how do you determine the sample size to offer? And how do you set the price?


  1. From the perspective of a tea blogger, I agree with you that sample sizes ought to be fairly small, but large enough to brew and taste the tea at least a couple of times. A sample too small is going to make a good evaluation difficult or impossible. But I don't typically have the problem of getting sent large amounts of tea that I dislike that end up left-over after a review, so there's no particular downsize to a larger sample size for me. Also, I recognize that there is some value in receiving a review/sample tea in the same packaging that a paying customer would receive, since it tells more about how the company operates.

    Also, to me there's a distinction between samples sent to reviewers, samples sent unsolicited to customers, and samples sold to customers. Those all have different purposes, so the sizes might not need to be the same. In the last case, "sample" really just means a smaller amount, so as a customer I wouldn't care what size it was as long as the amount were clearly specified.

  2. That was my thought too Alex, like Cinnabar I was wondering if you are talking about paid samples, or free samples. Quite honestly if you are sending me free samples, by all means make them 1oz samples. Although in all fairness I guess half that would do. Samples that are too small, and barely make 2 cups, are just disappointing. I need to brew the tea at least twice, and probably for two people each time.
    If I'm paying for a sample, I'll still need at least that amount. Also, it makes a difference if I'm steeping black tea, or say, oolong. Since - with few exceptions - I don't re-steep black tea, If that sample is too tiny, I really don't get much out of it, whereas oolong will give me more cups.
    On a side note; what gets me is how often I come across websites that do not make it clear how much tea you actually get for their price. But that's perhaps for another topic.

  3. I agree that it's problematic when companies don't list quantities.

    I don't really see a huge difference between free samples and purchased least for myself. I approach them similarly...and in fact, at any given time, I have a stash of samples that includes a mix of purchased and free ones.

    And from the company's perspective, is it really all that different? I wonder if any companies make a considerable portion of their income from samples? I doubt they do, but if they do, I could perhaps see treating these differently from free samples.