Starting up a tea business these days is quite an endeavor. And if you already have one, it could seem even tougher now to get those orders than it was just a few years ago. You can succeed, though, if you recognize the challenges you face and are prepared for them.
1 – Too Many Tea Masters
These days the term “tea master” has lost its meaning. Here’s what the ITMA has as a course:
Registrants must successfully complete the ITMA Certified Tea Sommelier Course™ or a similar training with another organization allowing you to skip the onsite and home study portions of this course and go directly to the Post-Training section. The Post-Training includes a Mystery Tea (blind tasting evaluation), an oral (5 minute) or written (4 page) dissertation on a subject assigned by ITMA, and a Final Examination (25 questions).
Their sommelier course is over 8 weeks, broken into 2 days of onsite instruction and the rest being home study. You can also take the course through Skype.
Sorry, but this is not even CLOSE to being a tea master like Mr. Zou Bing Liang of Haiwan Tea Factory. In fact, this program denigrates the title and people like him. This makes being a true tea master harder to recognize and thus quite a challenge for their tea business.
How to deal with this: Be sure your online store has an “About Us” page that tells your experience and background, especially if you are a real tea master, not one of these dime a dozen types (I have personally dealt with one such person – an insurance salesman who went through this course and now spends his days trying to hawk inferior teas, as they certainly seemed to me, while putting down competitors’ teas).
2 – Social Media Changes
It used to be easy to post about your products on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Steepster, and other such sites. Now, Twitter is pushing you to pay, Facebook is squeezing your people reach so you’ll pay, and so on. So getting seen is trickier.
How to deal with this: If you can afford to do so, hire a pro to help you at least get started on social media and avoid common pitfalls such as getting banned from groups. You may only need this person a few months to get you started and comfortable with how things work, or you may want them on a more long-term basis to help in that initial start-up phase that could make or break you.
3 – Competing with the Big Guys
Retail has developed over the years. Many of the changes have benefited big retailers and hurt small ones. Credit cards is one area – the fees these card companies charge can be absorbed more easily by JC Penney, Sears, Wal-Mart, and others. Returns is another issue, where shoppers have gotten totally spoiled with easy returns to those “big guys.” And the biggest of all is those two dreaded words: “free shipping.” Great for shoppers. Horrible for retailers, especially the little guys. But even Amazon.com is having second thoughts about a trend that they helped start. Shipping costs have gone up, and customers have gotten spoiled. Wayfair.com is advertising free shipping as they gear up for holiday orders.
How to deal with this: Charge for shipping, offer enough options so customers can keep that part as low as possible, and set a minimum order limit of $100 or more if you do go with free shipping. You have to be real here and not run yourself out of business.
4 – Rampant Misinformation About Tea
This one makes me cringe. So many bogus health claims. So much marketing hype (like is going on about matcha – the Japanese are claiming that theirs is highly superior to the Chinese version where this type of tea originated). Excited stories about new cultivars such as the so-called “purple tea.” Claims about the environment that end up damaging tea growers (such as the supposed harm of pesticides and fertilizers, so they have to be avoided and yields go down).
How to deal with this: Again, be sure you have a good “About Us” page, but in addition, have information on each of your teas that addresses these issues briefly. Health claims should have a disclaimer that it is not medical advice and they should consult their doctor. Counter marketing hype by stating the quality of your tea and maybe a testimonial or two from customers. And where appropriate be sure that you show which teas are organic along with a statement on the rest saying that all of your teas are safe and top quality (assuming that they really are – honesty is the best policy in any business).
5 – Factors Beyond Your Control
There’s always going to be something that you can’t anticipate. A family emergency. A natural disaster. The Federal Reserve Bank raising interest rates. Chuckle! Hopefully, nothing worse than these (no wars, meteor strikes, etc.).
How to deal with this: Be sure to have a bit of cash reserves, the right insurance coverage, and so on. Think a bit ahead. Plan for the best, but be ready for the worst.
© 2015 A.C. Cargill photos and text