“$280, green pu’er, you will like it, very popular…”
WHOA! That’s a lot of money for a cake I’ve never heard of, with coarse, mismatch-colored and uneven leaves.
“8 years old, aged, very good. Sweet!”
“No thanks, I’m just looking, what brand is the tea? Where did you get it? What does it taste like?” I felt bad asking questions, I was probably not going to buy anything from the shopkeeper’s store. She was having a going out of business sale and I had wandered in to see what she had. She didn’t know what mountain or the brand of the tea and had no time to offer a taste; she seemed intent on liquidating her stuff.
“Ok, too expensive? $40, I’ll give to you for $40.”
WHOA! $280 down to $40. For a no-name, no-sample, not-good-looking product. And I didn’t even have to ask. I walked the row of pu’er cakes and saw one that looked familiar, a yellow “Zhong” cooked CNNP cake, year unknown. Price? In the several hundreds range. I was starting to see why she was maybe going out of business. The experience reminded me of buying tea in China. I haven’t been so aggressively sold to in North America before, it was very odd. Confusing that the price tags meant little, too, as she would just shout out seemingly random prices for any product that I laid my eyes on.
The high-end, premium and/or artisanal tea shop business is a tough one, and definitely not one that most people choose as a path to vast fortunes. Behind the scenes, it takes a lot of work for shop owners to source good product each season and to anticipate customer demand. Following the devastating rains in Taiwan around 2008 that destroyed many tea plantations, Alishan high mountain oolong in particular was in short supply (thus, higher prices) but didn’t taste so great. Many retailers were stuck with stock of an otherwise-popular tea that they couldn’t sell, one that unlike pu’er or roasted oolongs is particularly sensitive to age. Going online, you may still find product from around that time.
Tea sales in the west are also different in that most people like to sample several teas at a shop before purchasing. Then when they purchase, it is usually by the ounce. In Taiwan, most purchases are by the bag or some quantity starting from 1/2 jin. If a customer over here has to sample 2 teas to buy 4 ounces, then it costs the shop owner ~8-10 grams of tea to sell about 112 grams. Multiply this by 50 customers a week and that’s a lot of tea that’s going just to samples. I have seen some shops in North America charge for sampling, but most don’t.
During my time as a tea lover, I’ve seen quite a number of shops go out of business, change owners, or continue to struggle for survival. A lot of shops subsidize their business by selling other things like snacks, furniture, antiques, consulting services, and even lotto tickets. It is a tough business, and it’s sad to hear about good shops with good people that get out the business because of economic reasons. Not so sad to me, though, when shops with unreasonable prices, terrible values, poor information or dishonest practices call it quits.
Brick & mortar retailers are wonderful places to learn, exchange ideas, meet new friends and advance tea culture. As e-commerce has changed the function and profitability of so many businesses out there, it’s to be expected that tea would be one of them. The internet tea businesses has taken off. Low barriers to entry, limited overhead and staff expenses, no free samples, an efficient ordering process…. It’s also unsurprising that pu’er tea is so popular to sell. Unlike other teas, it’s shelf-stable and usually improves with age, removing the anxiety of having to sell out a product each season or year. On average, wholesale prices of popular, new pu’er cakes is also lower than premium oolongs. Third, aside from sample sizes, most people buy pu’er by the cake/tuo/brick…not by the ounce. As far as tea businesses go, pu’er is a smart move (or it was, before thousands of pu’er shops sprung up all over the web). Doubly so for the retailers that have been able to anticipate demand for products with good potential and adjust price accordingly over time. A green 90s Xiaguan tuo that I picked up earlier this year has just about doubled in price. Good stuff, people continue to buy it at the new price, but I couldn’t imagine this happening with a Baozhong or an Oriental Beauty.
I buy a lot of tea online, but I buy even more of it in person. Tea shops add a lot of value and I wouldn’t want to imagine a world without them. This same sentiment is echoed across the vastness of all retail locations, whether it be boutique clothing shops, independent coffee shops, travel agents…. Buying online is great for price, variety and efficiency. Buying at your favorite local tea shop preserves community and enhances the tea experience. Realizing how hard it is for small businesses to stay committed to their passions and dreams in serving us, let’s try to give them our support by spending there, too.
To all of the uniquely awesome tea friends that I’ve met face-to-face, and to all of the passionate and generous tea retailers & producers that have provided me with the time, space and opportunity to be a part of their tea community, I continue to be grateful for all of you! CommuniTEA makes the experience so much more rewarding.
Drink good tea (at your local shop) and enrich your life.