Tea Merchant, Distinguish Thyself

When I came up with the idea for this article it was based on the following question: “Can tea sellers really succeed by offering the same bland, slapdash selection of tea?” It’s a valid question, but it seemed that I’d phrased it a bit harshly and I considered toning it down for the article.

Izu Matcha
Izu Matcha

Which I obviously haven’t done. Because the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the business world can be kind of harsh and only the strong survive. They do so, in large part, by setting themselves apart from the competition, a competition that may offer products not so different from their own.

When it comes to tea, I’d assert that the road to success is not to (seemingly) randomly pull together a lackluster assortment of varieties, set up a lackluster ecommerce site and hang out your shingle. Even an absolutely stunning ecommerce site is probably not going to do much to distract potential buyers from the fact that other merchants are doing the same thing and might be doing it better.

In the years I’ve written about tea, I’ve seen a lot of merchant sites. Every time I encounter a new merchant, I head to their site and scout around and am frequently disappointed. I won’t name names, but one merchant I recently ran across claims to have been in business for a decade. I can’t imagine how, given their small, thoroughly uninspired tea selection and a web site that’s state of the art – for 1998.

On the other hand I know of at least one company that specializes in matcha, the powdered Japanese green tea that was once the province of the Japanese tea ceremony but which is steadily gaining ground with the general tea drinking public. In the last week I was contacted by another merchant who narrows that narrow category even further, specializing only in high-end matcha. Which seems like a sound foundation for a tea business. While there are many merchants who already sell matcha, I might be more inclined to buy it from one that deals in nothing but.

And they’re not the only ones. If I’m going to buy Chinese tea (a broad category, but a specialty nonetheless), I might be more inclined to buy it from one of the many specialists. Ditto for those merchants who specialize in Japanese tea. Or those less numerous merchants who sell nothing but oolong tea. Or the black tea specialist I recently ran across who sells 14 varieties of Assam as well as black tea from all major growing regions. Or the sponsors of this blog, who specialize in all things related to English tea culture.

But I’ve made my point. It’s probably worth mentioning that it’s still possible to fail miserably even if you’ve got the most exciting niche product imaginable. But it’s certainly not a bad way to get started at getting a leg up on the other guys.

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3 thoughts on “Tea Merchant, Distinguish Thyself

  1. Pingback: The Year in Tea – A Retrospective « Tea Blog

  2. I sometimes wonder with these sites…been in business for a long time…does that mean that they were running something on the side that was breaking even or possibly losing money? You can do that for years if it’s a hobby and you subsidize it with another income source.

    Businesses are surprising though. When I started working in business-to-business services, like computer consulting and other related technical types of consulting, I was surprised to learn how many businesses earn the bulk of their income through some sort of tangential product that is not the main association with their brand name. I find it’s frequent that a busines earns 80% of their profit from about 20% of their activities or products, and these activities or products are sometimes totally off the radar…sometimes not even advertised, but just, random products done through word of mouth, or niche businesses where there is a long-standing business relationship, supplying a particular company.

    I wonder if that could be going on too. Some companies find some sort of niche and it keeps them not only in business. Maybe their tea is unexciting but they’re selling a certain type of teaware? Maybe it’s a brick-and-mortar business that is just run by someone who is incredibly nice and everyone likes them? Maybe they go in to get advice on the stock market, and they’re just buying the tea to keep the guy in business so they can keep chatting with him and getting good stock picks.

    Who knows? But honestly, I’ve seen ALL these sorts of things…they sound silly but it’s been my experience that this is how the world works…it can be pretty random and unpredictable, and it takes an insider’s view to see what’s really going on and why certain businesses thrive while others fold.

    1. A.C. Cargill

      Thanks for the rather long comment, Alex, and for your continued readership. I am not surprised by business, having viewed it very realistically. So the things that you are noting (i.e., 80% of profits from 20% of products) seem quite normal. Have a great tea day! 🙂

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