SpontaneiTea’s recent (well, not-so-recent by the time I actually post this) post on the oversights of Bigelow’s new website got me thinking. And it only got worse (the thinking) when I clicked through to his guide to the Best Practices for Tea Company Websites. I live in an area blessed by a thriving (well, maybe less so now as we usher in the era of DavidsTea) industry of independent tea shops. Not as dense as some places, I’m sure, but there’s a lot within the radius of public transit that I have access to. At any rate, my question, followed by my experiences.
What would we do for our favourite tea companies?
Often it’s an independent tea company. Something small, just starting up, that gem you’ve just discovered, and you want them to do well. Sometimes it’s a brick and mortar shop, but not uncommonly it’s just a virtual storefront. I find I get attached to these startups, and I end up chatting up the owner (surprising, considering I’m not very good at approaching people, but tea seems to have helped me bridge that gap).
SpontaneiTea’s post reminded me first of the few times I’ve offered (somewhat unsolicited) advice to new shop owners. It’s rarely heeded, seeing as I am just a random Joe off the street (even if I do become a “regular”); I have amateur experience in webdesign (from the days of geocities), and although I’m going to refrain from naming names, there is more than one independent tea company in my vicinity/that I follow whose website I wish I could expand upon, or completely redesign from the ground up. One of them has since gotten a professional redesign of their website, but I fear they’ve taken the webmaster/maintenance of the site into their own hands, with… not much success (if you don’t have a background in computers, I would really suggest highering a webmaster, or at least someone to show you the tools–there exist many platforms–like wordpress!–that make the functionality easier, but there’s still ways for it to go south if you don’t know the ropes [for example, the occasional post meant to go on a teatra.de blog, ending up in the forums instead, as we’ve all seen]; I know this from experience, being the webdesigner and developer but not the webmaster of a few amateur sites back in the days of geocities).
It’s exciting, going into a newly opened independent teashop for the first time, especially if they don’t (or don’t already) have a website up; I like scoping out shops before going in (chalk it up to my fear of small shop spaces), and if they don’t have a site up yet, then you often don’t know what teas they carry. There’s a number of basic wholesale tea companies you can expect, but you hope for the odd surprise. Nothing is more disappointing than to find that they’re another Metropolitan Clone (I’ve been disappointed more than once on this front). I want desperately for new small tea companies to succeed, and Metropolitan is an unfortunate dead end for many of them.
Not only does it put you in direct competition with DavidsTea as a company of mostly flavoured teas (keep in mind I’m in Canada), the teas themselves are dime a dozen, the bases really aren’t the best, and they don’t hold a candle to DavidsTea’s blends. I think it’s safe to say DavidsTea holds the market in heavily flavoured tea, at least in Canada.
I try to (casually) urge new companies away from Metropolitan’s startup package, of course, and I’ve been tempted on more than one occasion to compile lists of other wholesale tea companies that I know ship to Canada. Any attempt to breathe new life into the independent tea biz of the lower mainland.
Davids tea has definitely affected the tea market in Vancouver. Since it started catching on, I’ve seen many new independent tea shops open, and about as many existing independent shops and weak chains close down. Many of these shops weren’t too hard to guess–some just had a weak selection. Those brands still around seem to be struggling, and many of these are shops that specialize in flavoured teas, and in doing so, have put themselves in direct competition with DavidsTea. In fact, the only shops I’ve seen that don’t seem to have even noticed the phase are those that have absolutely nothing to do with flavoured tea (heck, I know a shop two shops down from a Davids that is doing absolutely fine–though, sometimes I sit in there and watch people walk by carrying DavidsTea bags, completely oblivious to this shop’s very existence). These only do well if they’ve already gathered their own group of loyal followers, though; word of mouth is important. One of my favourite new independent tea shops started out with a strong selection of unflavoured single-origins, but since has slowly begun carrying more and more flavoured teas (Metropolitan, I suspect). I think because it’s new, it attracted DavidsTea followers, and thus was forced to put itself into direct competition with the brand just to stay afloat. Not enough people knew about the brand’s original lineup, so it wasn’t able to sustain itself without switching over to flavoured teas.
The shop in question is my current tea shop obsession, and was part of what got me thinking on the subject of ‘what would you do’? (Another was a tea shop that ended up going under…) It started with them slowly bringing back fewer and fewer of their single-origin teas; if you asked, most of their tea menu even had harvest dates, and even though it wasn’t a giant selection, it was a good one. I went to them originally because they had a surprising (small, but still sturdy) selection of puers (plus I was surprised that an independent shop had opened up right under my nose). I was able to guess their main wholesaler instantly, and worked out their secondary pretty soon after that as well (it’s great when tea companies retail from more than one wholesale company instead of just restricting themselves). I was thrilled because both wholesalers were companies I’d wanted to try, but I hate shipping fees/waiting for packages/being unable to try the tea before I commit to two ounces. The independent shop has a nice, informative and well-designed website, though no online shop (which makes sense–they would only put themselves in direct competition with their wholesalers, both of which have retail sites of their own). They carried a great selection of accessories (beautiful, petite yixings, puer knives, well-priced gong fu trays, kyusus), and heck–a great selection of tea books (including Pratt’s Tea Dictionary, with no markup from the Amazon price). They also support Canadian companies by carrying Canadian goods (TeaLibre!), and they supported other independent businesses in the area by carrying a small number of local items (soaps, etc; they’ve since expanded to carrying local small-batch honeys produced in the area).
So yeah, I got attached. But then they started slimming down their already slim puer selection… And their Fujian black selection went down to one, and now I think none at all (I’m told they simply weren’t good sellers; but who doesn’t love a good China black?). Their single origin list nosedived, and then bounced back, but looks to have been fleshed out by recognizable names from Metropolitan only, and then suddenly the rest of their black tea section ballooned out with well-known Metropolitan flavoured teas. I’m downright heartbroken. Maybe it’s just for the summer? Catering to those who like a good flavoured iced tea! Right? Is this denial?
I want to get them into contact with other unflavoured independent tea shops in the lower mainland. I’m still convinced unflavoured tea shops can do well in the Era of DavidsTea, but I think it’s all a matter of exposure and getting your names out to the right people (and quickly). Vancouver and the Lower Mainland has a tea society, of which I don’t believe the tea shop is affiliated with (the owners aren’t originally from here); but they enthusiastically attend tea conventions (those out east, anyway). The employees there love tea, and I often have discussions about their puers with one employee, and oolongs with another (for a while I was trying to convince them to retail more dan congs–I know two of their wholesalers has a good strong selection of dan cong varietals, more than just the basic mi lan honey-orchid [which they do carry]; maybe if I keep hinting…).
I want them to do well, but is it selfish that I want them to do well by my standards? Everything changes, I suppose.
I lost one tea company–it went under the day I was leaving for my summer job, but managed to bounce back as an online storefront a while later. Since then, they’ve stopped carrying some of my favourite blends (and needs another website overhaul… seriously I would do it unpaid), but they’re still afloat.
And then there’s Murchie’s, which I was planning on giving its own post, but… Their wide open storefront in downtown Vancouver’s gone under. Murchie’s is Canadian History to me, so it was upsetting. They moved one street over and opened up a shop barely ten feet across. Now they only sell tea to go, no pastries; there’s no where to sit, and only a cramped little selection space to look at teaware. Instead of their giant containers of tea, everything’s in modern, DavidsTea-esque tins (which I suppose is better than the giant glass containers and wooden chests they were in before–it looked rad vintage, but wasn’t exactly great for tea freshness), no longer have a minimum of an ounce (it’s been bumped up to two ounces; I’m pretty upset about that), and has regulated their coffee to pre-packaged bags (well, I suppose this new shop is supposed to be Tea-Specific, so I suppose that isn’t too bad–but they have a loyal fanbase of coffee-lovers too). The new modern design resembles DavidsTea while still keeping the warm, welcoming family-owned feel of Murchie’s, and I think the change will only make their situation worse. The original Murchie’s was a sit-down place to hold meetings; it had its own kind of regulars. There were the teens and friends that sat up front in the plush chairs, and the businessmen that sat at the tables near the counter. They had tea-to-go, but I wouldn’t consider it a tea-to-go place. It was a casual sit-down. Not high tea, not tea-to-go, just comfortable in between. The new shop though looks for the kind of rush of young-adults-in-a-hurry that caters to DavidsTea. I don’t even think they sell coffee to go (I haven’t asked, so don’t quote me).
I guess this’ another case of the above–I want them to do well, but is it selfish to want them to do well by my standards? I really do kinda hate change. I’m working on it. I’m going into a career that involves a lot of change.