Doulton said

Advice for Tea Merchants

I hope that this is not a redundant topic; I haven’t seen one like it. What kinds of things would you like Tea Merchants to know? I’ve ordered from about 35 different companies in the past 5 months and have a small list of items I wish I could change. Firstly, the “big” companies like Harney & Sons and Upton’s have really perfected the art of customer service as far as I can tell. I love them. But I am also aware that it’s essential to support smaller companies so that tea does not become totally “wal-martized” and “K-marted”. What has turned me off about smaller companies?

1) You’ve got a nice individual label for each tea bag and have added: “go online for our advice on brewing times and temperatures”. I’ve got the tea poured and want to set my timer. Cranking up the computer to see if this should be a 2 minute brew or a 5 minute one becomes a race against time.

2) Your internet site offers customers a choice of “small” or “large” or “medium” orders but you don’t specify if “small” is one serving, 100 grams, 2 ounces, or what. Is large a pound? 50 Grams? Don’t make me guess!

3) You plan to go off on a long cruise or you plan to have a baby or a facelift. You should write on your website: expect a delay of 4 weeks on orders placed through September 30th. How I love those web sites that say "all orders will be shipped within…(48 hours? 7 days?—having some expectation makes me forgive those who take longer if I am forewarned).

4) Your shipping costs are $20.00 but if a customer orders $50.00 worth of tea the shipping is free. $20.00? Really?

5) Demanding that I give you the email addresses of 10 friends in order to get a big discount from you. No way am I going to give up my friends! I move away from your web-site feeling resentful. Are you the J. Edgar Hoover of tea companies?


Things I like but I understand not everyone can afford:

1) a small free sample or two with an order makes me feel as if I’ve won something for nothing
2) A close guesstimate as to when to expect delivery
3) Email notification if you are out of stock and the delivery will be delayed
4) Sample sizes to purchase if you can afford to package them. A taste of a sample size has many times persuaded me to place a full-sized order.

Does anyone else have any ideas on this topic?

54 Replies

Here are a few things:

1. I’d like a way to get tracking info on the web from my account without having to have the tracking number that was sent in a separate email. Otherwise I can only track from my home computer easily.

2. In a similar vein, if you’re going to do e-commerce at all, I don’t think there is any excuse for not having order status and order history information available to the customer on the web.

3. I’d like a response to my email inquiries within 48 hours or so. As much as I love Samovar, they have yet to respond to two emails and a tweet about when they expect certain things back in stock. Teavana, as much of a bum rap as they get, responded immediately to a similar question as did Kusmi. At the very least, there should be an amazon-style “sign up to be notified when this comes in” option.

4. There should always be a sample size available for every tea, not just certain ones. They don’t have to be free, and they can be priced to cover costs and also to discourage people from only buying 3 samples when they should just buy the smallest regular size, but I’m not likely to buy something I can’t taste first.

5. User friendly navigation interfaces for web ordering. Almost every site makes it really hard to go back to a list of the teas you were viewing without clicking at least 3 times after putting something in your shopping cart.

6. Consistent information about brewing is certainly useful. Mostly I wonder why it is sometimes inconsistent when it comes from the same company. I can understand different companies having different philosophies, but there should be some internal consistency.

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I agree with all of the above. The shipping costs is what is getting me these days…$20 for shipping a tea that costs less than $20! Really? I rarely order $50 worth of tea unless I am also ordering tea ware. Come on, I am just a poor teacher who enjoys a cup of tea daily.
I do think every company should include a free sample with each and every order and if I could pick that sample, that would be fantastic.
AND,I want tracking information on my orders.

Cofftea said

While I think inexpensive sample sizes are a great benefit to the company’s bottom line (to introduce a customer to a tea they may not be sure about w/ little financial commitment on their part) and also love and appreciate free samples, I think it’s wrong to expect them (or anything) for free. I am much more concerned about how companies handle the order that I pay for. Also, I think it benefits both the company and the customer to not allow the customer to pick the sample if they do offer one. This forces the customer to get out of their comfort zone and try a tea that they possibly may have never dreamed of purchasing thus increasing the chances that they may order some in the future which would bring more profit to the company.

SoccerMom said

I LOVE to buy from Teas Etc. because of the free sample that they let me choose from! I don’t mind purchasing samples (you would know this if you could see my collection of samples) but that complimentary sample makes me smile and in turns makes me order more!

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Cofftea said

PACKAGING! Clear and/or non resealable packages no matter what amount I order is not ok. I pay for the product, packaging, shipping, etc- so I don’t want to have to invest my own time and money to change packaging. Also, to me good packaging is a sign that the company cares about their product- if they don’t, that’s a problem.

Also, conflict resolution… If something comes up and your order can’t go out ASAP it is up to the company to notify the customer, sincerely apologize, do everything they can to prevent it from happening again, and possibly offer compensation- especially if it happens more than once.

I echo proper steeping parameters. If a company doesn’t know how to properly prepare a tea, why should I trust them?

Shipping costs- most companies do not have a problem w/ this, but I think it makes more sense to have free shipping for light packages instead of by large dollar amount. For example: $8 for a 50g package that cost $6.75 to travel 90 miles that takes 9 days- not ok.

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Hmm… I’m not sure how I should respond to this… as a customer or as a purveyor… I think I will just go with what comes to mind as I read each point, should I have a thought that I feel is pertinent.

Shipping costs: As a vendor, this is a hard issue, because not all shopping cart programs are created the same. Some have ways that the shipping cost can be adjusted based upon shipping zones, others are based on weight, others are based on cost of product, and some are flat rates.

My current venue is through Artfire and I am not able to adjust the initial shipping fee for zone, weight or product, I have to just assign a flat rate for each product, and then I can assign a flat rate for each additional product. Example: For the first package of tea, you might be charged $4 shipping, and charged $2 for each additional package in your order. This can add up, but I don’t have a way of assigning a “maximum” shipping charge with the current limitations of the venue.

In addition, I have no way of adjusting the price at checkout based upon where the product will be shipped to. It costs me far less to ship a package to Portland than it would to ship it to Miami. But, because I can’t adjust the shipping charge according to shipping destination in the system, I have to charge what it would cost to send that item to Miami rather than what it would cost to ship to Portland, so that I don’t lose money.

How I personally deal with these situations – if a customer is overcharged, I refund them through the same payment process that they paid. That is, if they paid via paypal, I refund through paypal, and so on.

Most vendors, in my experience, are not trying to run a profit off of shipping costs, but they don’t want to lose money shipping product either. So my advise is that if you feel you were grossly overcharged for shipping, contact the vendor and ask them about it.

I agree with tracking information – I like to have that too, but, not all programs are equipped to have tracking information stored on the companies website or selling venue. This is not necessarily the fault of the company, but the fault of the limitations of the website or venue.

As far as samples go, I provide at least 1 free sample with every order, and I must admit that as a customer, I feel a bit slighted when I do not receive a free sample. I realize that we shouldn’t expect it, but, I do. It’s one of those personal little touches that makes me feel special and makes it fun to shop with a company.

Oh…dear, I’ve probably composed a novel here….

I don’t sell tea but i do ecommerce software management – and i can say many programs that are inexpensive are exactly as stated above – you can’t control them, and they just use “flat $” or “%” calculations. Yes some places offer APIs to determine close to actual cost – but that only works if the ecommerce software was written to talk with that API.

So, sadly some companies just are stuck with mediocre (but secure, you don’t want people writing stuff from scratch that takes your credit card!) software that offends buyers – I do love your approach of refunding the extra through. I think tossing in samples or refunding goes a long way

I am currently using just paypal shopping cart. I didn’t know more expensive shopping cart system doesn’t provide better shipping calculator either :-o Luckily tea is light weight merchandise, and the bias in shipping usually is not big.

I guess that’s why many online companies choose to “under-charge” postage. I’ve bought other things by paying only $4 shipping for a big box of stuff, but the merchandise price must have covered part of the shipping.

On the other hand, most apparel companies charge shipping based on how much money one spends, which really makes me feel I am punished by spending more money. For example, a small necklace of $50 may cost more shipping than a pair of shoes of $30. I guess this is a result of their shopping cart system.

Yes Ginko it is exactly that, they’re using % based systems – I usually work with Microsoft’s Commerce Server solution, which licenses run us 50,000$ per server per year, and that has the ‘hooks’ for the APIs but doesn’t bother to do complex tax or shipping ‘out of the box’ so if you want to attach those hooks to APIs (like vertex for taxes) it costs even more!

Plus they could be using older systems, once you invest a ton of money in your system it is hard to upgrade to newer nicer systems (ones with perhaps the APIs) if it’s not broke and they can’t justify the ROI

I use X-Cart for shopping cart software. It allows you to use real live shipping rates from your carriers like FedEx or UPS. (my ups account had a zero discount making it too high so I only use FedEx its a better deal) For USPS I can use zones. The cart system is not too expensive to start. (about $300, and that includes x-cart service installing it on your hosting company) They also have lots of add-ons you can get for your cart which are pretty cool.

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Miss Sweet said

I like it when companies send me an email letting me know my order has been shipped, so I know when to expect it. When I get my automated receipt back after placing an order, I don’t know if they are assembling it that day or several days later.

I’d also like more websites to be clear about international shipping on their shipping info page. If you ship worldwide, say so. If you don’t, it helps to have a list of the countries that you do ship to. If you ship worldwide but need me to flick you an email if I’m outside the US/Canada, say so. Often a company will say they ship internationally, then its not until I click through to the payment screen that I see it only lists the US, Canada & Europe. I don’t mind having to jump through extra hoops to get my tea sent here because I know its sometimes extra hassle for companies, but being clear about the shipping policy makes things much easier!

I second having sample sizes (or small sizes) to purchase in at least some of the range of teas, if not all. I’m buying online because I can’t get or try your tea anywhere here, sometimes its too much of a gamble to buy a 100g bag I might not like when the shipping to NZ costs twice as much as the tea. Plus I’d be more likely to add a few samples if placing order to make it worth my while.

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Melanie said

I’m not really adding anything new to the ideas… but I just had to second two ideas presented.

First – the packaging is really important to me. If it comes in a bag that I know, once opened, will allow too much air to change the flavor of the tea, I find it annoying to have to figure out how to store the tea. That doesn’t apply so much to an order that is a large amount, then I am planning for it to go into one of my special tea containers. But if a company doesn’t value their tea enough to package it so it remains fresh after I open it, I feel like it probably wasn’t cared for properly before I received it.

Second – I must agree – samples are a great way to get me to come back! I recently got some black tea from Indonique. They sent 3 samples – an Oolong and 2 greens! Very very smart! Large enough for me to enjoy several cups – but small enough that once I’m hooked on any I am going to have to return to buy!

Must admit – LiberTEAS is excellent at this!

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This is a great thread! I am learning a lot. So glad to see on steepster that merchants can not only distribute information but actually get thoughtful inputs from consumers!

Ottawa Tea said

Your service is always really amazing Gingko. Keep it up – service + great tea keeps me coming back.

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Cait select said

Okay, I’ll chip in a few apparently kind of a lot of my tea shopping experiences in an unordered mix of preferences on items for sale and on how they’re presented and sold:

  • One of the first things I look for on a small seller’s website is signs of life. Are there announcements of new teas? Are there seasonal suggestions? Is there a blog/twitter/newsfeed, and is there recent news on it? Does the website work, or are there dead links?
  • I want practical, down-to-earth descriptions of the teas, more than just an ingredient list but also more than just poetry and vague adjectives.
  • I want pretty pictures of the teas. At my current state of (lack of) tea knowledge, this tells me very little about the tea, but I still enjoy it and feel like a description is unfinished without a photo or two.
  • In a sample pack that I’m paying for, I want to know what’s in it and how much there is. (For free samples, I am not so picky!)
  • I like variety packs of small amounts of different teas; I know that that’s more expensive than the same amount of a single kind of tea and I’m willing to pay a moderate amount more for it.
  • I like companies with more of a specialization that “tea!”, who focus on sweet blends, on oolongs, on blooming teas, on greens, etc. If I wanted a one-stop-shopping for all of my teas…well, I probably wouldn’t be into tea because I’d wind up incredibly frustrated, but let’s use this as a positive! There’s a big artsy specialization market in teas, which makes it so interesting to poke around and compare and find new possibilities.
  • I like a merchant’s website to have the following information clearly available: where they are located, what their shipping rates are (ballpark options or lists of possibilities are fine), how long they’ve been in business, and what their general philosophies and specializations are.
  • I like websites which don’t require me to register in order to make a purchase.
  • I like websites with search functions!
  • I don’t care much about company websites having reviews, because it’s hard to help feeling that those reviews are under the control of the company. Still, if they’re there I usually read that, especially if the description of the tea itself is lacking.
  • I don’t actually care much about the speed of the shipping. I know that makes me unusual, though!
  • I also don’t care much about the packaging being resealable; this is probably because I tend to prefer large assortments of smaller quanties, so having half of a sample packet left in a plastic baggie is just one of those things. On the other hand, I care kind of a ridiculous amount about labels on packages which can’t easily be peeled off of the original packaging and stuck on my tin or bag!
  • I like websites which group the teas in such a way that I never have too many category choices at once.
    • This is good, for a seller with many varieties:
      1. Black Tea
      …….a. Unflavored
      ………………..i. Assam
      ………………..ii. Ceylon
      ………………..iii. Darjeeling
      …….b. Flavored
      2. Green Tea
      3. Oolong Tea
      4. Herbal Infusions
  • This is not good, for a seller with many varieties:
    1. Assam
    2. Ceylon
    3. Darjeeling

    29. Mint Infusions
    30. Rosehip Infusions
  • This is good, for a seller who focuses on Darjeeling:
    1. Darjeeling
    …….a. Unflavored
    …….b. Flavored
    2. Other unflavored black teas
    3. Other flavored black teas

Okay, I guess that was more than “a few” of my thoughts! Er, sorry?

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I agree with most everything that has been said, but here are a few additional things I think of:

-reusable, recyclable packaging. Reusable tins, sturdy boxes I can repurpose, reusable tissue paper and composting packing peanuts and “plastic” bags that can go in the compost bin? I love you! I love my local tea shop, but I hate the heavy plastic zip lock bags they package their teas in. I do like that you can go in with your zip bag and ask for a refill though :) You can’t do that with an online tea merchant.

- I also have shipping cost woes. I love the companies that offer free shipping if you spend a certain amount, but I really love the companies that offer a REASONABLE flat shipping fee if you don’t feel like spending a fortune that particular order. For example, seredipiTea offers a flat 5.50 rate – fair to them, fair to me. I know merchants have their bottom line and their own shipping woes, so I’m just asking for fair, not free. We can share the woes :)

-I love free samples, but they have to be thoughtful samples. Don’t just throw a tea that you want to push or is nearing the end of its freshness on me. That makes me feel like a garbage can, not a valued customer. Look at what I’ve ordered and throw in something you think I’ll like. If you don’t have the time or resources to do that, leave the sample out.

Regarding packaging (from my point of view as a vendor): I agree with you and I think it’s very important to have reusable and/or recyclable packaging. We all need to be more environmentally aware, in my opinion.

One thing, though, as a vendor: I could never package my teas in a plastic bag for several reasons. First of all, tea is like a sponge in that it leeches flavors off of things – including the plastic it’s wrapped in. Second of all, it would allow too much light to reach the tea, which isn’t good for the tea. I wouldn’t know what my customer would do with the tea once it’s in their hands – whether they will keep it in the plastic bag or whether they will immediately put it in a tin. I care about the quality of tea too much to put a large quantity (such as a refill size) of tea into a plastic bag.

LiberTEAS How about those heavy bags (are they mylar?) with zips? I have some teas in bags like that and am now a little worried!

It would really depend upon the lining of the bags. Mylar is a good lining for tea. Some “plastics” are better than others, and if they are specifically made for tea packaging… I would say that they are probably alright. You can contact the purveyor and inquire about them, they should know what their packaging is made of and how it might/if it might affect the tea.

I want to also clarify something in my last post… because I do actually put my samples in a small plastic bag. I usually put my samples into T-Sacs first though, to protect them.

I am a bit … I guess neurotic? … when it comes to tea. LOL When people send me samplings of tea in the mail, the first thing I do is reach for my stash of little tins and put them into an airtight tin… what’s really funny about this is that often, that same day even, I will go ahead and drink the tea… finishing off the sampling that was sent to me… so it probably really wasn’t even necessary to put it in the tin to begin with. LOL

So… a lot of this is probably my own neurotic tendencies…

i find that the industrial food grade plastic food bags don’t leech @JacquelineM – but the cheap baggies will (think acme brand plastic bags) – if you check uline.com and similar sites you’ll see the food grade bags listed, and frequently now aside from spices or snacks they’ll list tea as a suggested item to use them for (i however don’t need 1000 baggies)

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Jillian said

I think most people here have already heard me rant about shipping cost. American companies in particular are terrible about this. They’ll charge $4-5 shipping to all their American customers but the moment a package crosses the border (north or south) the cost automatically gets jacked up to $20 + bucks! Do you really expect me to believe that going through customs is really going to cost that much more extra? Bullshit I say!

What’s really sad is that companies in the UK like Jing Tea or Nothing But Tea charge considerably less for shipping than many companies in the US. And yes, that’s after the monetary conversion!

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