State of the tea industry 2010…

by Tony Gebely 534 views4

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There have been many changes in our industry of late, and as it grows — we must be sure to be mindful of our actions as consumers in this growing industry — demanding only the best, honest, fair goods. A store can only sell things if we buy them. The power is in our hands, especially as this industry takes off. Let me start by introducing three societal “movements” from where many of my ideas and opinions are sourced:

1. Slow Food
2. Free Knowledge
3. The end of mass-marketing

The slow food movement was started 20 years ago and is gaining ground in America fast. The slow food movement believes that food should be “good, clean and fair,” and strives to counteract people’s “dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world” [].

The free knowledge movement is being made possible by the internet, with projects like Wikipedia that exist to “to bring [free] knowledge to everyone who seeks it” []– and with MIT recently opening up their online courses to the general public [] free of cost and without registration.

The end of mass-marketing is near, as Seth Godin writes: “You can no longer market to the anonymous masses. They’re not anonymous and they’re not masses. You can only market to people who are willing participants” []. The internet has provided homes to many niche markets — these niche markets continue to grow, the concept of “long-tail” marketing (if you can even still call it marketing) will become more prevalent.

I’m willing to bet that there are more tea retailers in America than there are tea wholesalers selling to America. Undoubtedly there are two retailers out there selling the same tea under their own names. Just how prevalent is this?

As review blogs become stuffed with countless reviews, they will begin to lose meaning. Those writing for free tea as a hobby will fade from view, those writing with real rating “systems” and usable web interfaces in place will rise.

As for tea retailers, the days of rebranding for small retailers are coming to an end. Small retailers need to begin a policy of transparency, developing their brands around the companies, farms, and families that actually produce the tea that they sell. If many small tea retailers become transparent this may result in a price war with others that have, but in the end, both consumer and retailer will benefit.

On knowledge: many more projects will pop up selling tea courses or certifications which will mostly be touting regurgitated information we already have freely available. I’d like to see new information from tea producing regions — I’d like to see our available information of tea be expanded instead of being re-written and sold.

Comments (4)

  1. Yes I see how concepts from slow food will increase consumers’ desire for knowledge about the source and quality of the tea they drink. Some of that knowledge and info will be free, because consumers will expect it.

    Re- tea reviewers: The “I like/don’t like it” reviews never did have much value, unless you found the reviewer with your exact tastes in every tea. Charles’s comment about the usefulness of reviews has some truth, but the day could come when premier reviewers become the Robert Parkers of tea. Tea consumers actually wait to hear the reviews before purchasing tea. As a result, tea retailers would rush their new teas to those premier reviewers to get the word out. Along with the tea reviewer, you will also see the rise of the one-stop comparison shopping for tea. This will beat the current model of going to each tea retailer to collect product information before making a purchase. An online marketplace will put all the Ming Qian Dragonwells in one place with reviews there to help consumers make the right choice.

    Michael- Agreed. Good, thorough research and information is hard work and will have to be bought in some form. The NY Times is finally catching on to this. Ad revenue models no longer fully support free content.

  2. Oh I LOVE THIS>. I am SO against Fast Foods!

  3. I’d like to say AMEN to what Charles has said, and add my response to the “free information” part of both his comment and the main article.

    I have been studying tea for 15 years, and been a professional teacher (but never a tea shop/wholesale business owner). I agree that most of the certification and education for tea out there in English is laughable. But the free information movement has some problems too–for example, the state of English language tea information is dreadfully poor. I have a tea information wiki that used to be open and free like Wikipedia. However, about 95% of the information added were either blatantly commercial (“This company makes the BEST tea ever!!”) or blatantly incorrect with no source citation. Since then I have made the wiki for members only and the average quality of information has increased directly as a result of making the information NOT free.

    The other problem with the free information idea is that information from producing countries is, in many cases, not in English. I know a number of translators and they are not cheap. So again getting GOOD information has very real costs involved. Note that MIT may have opened their online classes for free–those classes are, in essence, underwritten by the money paid by the students who go to in-person classes. Also, not all classes are available online, so the online classes may function as a marketing tool for MIT’s paid classes.

    I am working on building a tea school, drawing on expertise from producing countries (currently building relationships with producers in Taiwan and a Chinese agricultural university specializing in tea, as well as the aforementioned translators) to provide accurate tea information. But I worry that the idea that “information is free” will undermine serious students’ willingness to pay for the accurate and well-researched information when there is so much wrong-and-free information available.

    Are researchers, translators, and professional teachers–not tea business owners who teach on the side–destined to a life of poverty? If the “information is free” philosophy is correct, then these professions will die a painful death, doing long hours of hard work for no financial return.

    Personally, I think there’s another option: recognizing that GOOD information is worth paying for, and that most of what you get for free is worth what you pay for it.

  4. Well said. I’d like to add a few comments if I may:

    1. The problem doesn’t start with retailers. Most wholesalers in the US buy from other wholesalers in the US and sell the same tea – only marked up. REAL transparency through the supply chain, will bring down the cost of GOOD tea AND raise profits for retailers.

    2. I hope we get some real tea reviews. I’m tired of seeing people say, “Well, I don’t normally like Darjeelings but I thought I’d try this one. I don’t like it.” Ahhhg. That’s not a useful review!!! The one problem with this is that, with orthodox specialty tea, every “plucking” (one day’s harvest which is processed from beginning to end as a unique lot) is DIFFERENT. Sometimes remarkably so. So unlike wine where you can rate a season at a time, there may be 100 or more unique harvests just within the category of First Flush Darjeeling Puttabong 2009. So the reviews are only useful on flavored teas (assuming the blender is uniform in their approach) and in identifying which retailers/wholesalers consistently carry top quality teas.

    3. I believe there will always be opportunity for retailers to create private label custom blends, but I agree that a classic tea should be “branded” by it’s source. You don’t see each liquor store or wine shop tearing off the labels and putting their own on there.

    4. I’d love to see real educational opportunities. In fact I’ve been in talks with several industry leaders about making this type of thing happen. Even the widely popular and respected certification courses are often led by volunteers who can’t agree on the correct answer to some key questions. There is no uniformity of information and there is NO WAY that I can see to learn in a short period of time what you need to know to be successful in this business – unless you take a job with a tea company. Most educators (not all) are people who failed in business and so decided to teach. I know MANY of these people!! While I respect them and their intellect, they simply cannot know whether or not the information they provide is that which will make the student successful.

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