http://www.flickr.com/photos/poirotm/22222196/It has long been my dream to open my own tea shop – a comfortable, casual place where people can explore and enjoy loose-leaf tea in a relaxed atmosphere.  Of course, doing this takes quite a bit of savings and a lot of planning, so I haven’t quite reached my goal yet.

I’ve been thinking of different ways that I could start small and develop a customer base to get me closer to opening my shop, but I’m not sure in which direction I should go.  Some people have suggested starting an online business, which would be easier to start on a small budget.  I think it is definitely an option, but I’m not sure how I could create the atmosphere I’m looking for online.  Also, there are already many online tea retailers, so I would be competing against all of them, not just the businesses in my home town.

Another option – and one I’m strongly considering – is a “sales party” business, in which I would bring my tea and teaware to a customer’s or friend’s house, and sell to an invited group.  To me, this is similar to an online business, except you would be able to interact directly with your customers, and potentially convey more of the spirit of your tea business to them.  I think that personal interaction is a huge part of the tea business, and one that I always enjoy when I’m purchasing tea.  It’s much more satisfying to me to talk to a tea vendor and hear his / her opinions on the teas I’m considering.  Sometimes I still buy only what I intended, but sometimes I’ll purchase something in addition, or occasionally change my mind entirely. 

http://www.flickr.com/photos/firepile/3612622704/It’s also great to be able to sample a tea before buying, if your tea purveyor will steep a sample cup.  Just the other day, I went into a local tea shop to buy a vanilla tea I had bought before.  The salesperson told me that they had recently had to change vendors, and the vanilla tea they were currently sourcing was quite a bit different from the one they had stocked before.  He first let me sniff it, then offered to make a sample cup so I could see if I liked it.  Even though the shop was pretty busy, he still took time to make sure I’d be satisfied with my purchase.  I did buy the new tea, even though I didn’t like the flavor quite as much as the previous version.  These experiences are more difficult in a virtual environment, although many online tea retailers do a great job describing the flavors and aromas of their teas.  I think that for me as a seller of tea, an in-person experience would be much richer and more satisfying.

A third option that has been suggested is a tea cart or even a tea trailer.  Obviously, either of these would be a greater investment than an online or “sales party” business, but might be even better at conveying an atmosphere.  It’s hard for me to get my head around how I would create that atmosphere in what is essentially a “grab-and-go” environment, but I think I could do it.  With a tea cart, if I had a fairly permanent location, I could convey a certain style in the way the cart was set up and decorated, and, of course, with my own personality!  A tea trailer might be more of a challenge, unless I could figure out a way to have some seating inside.  While coffee lends itself easily to a to-go situation, tea takes more time to prepare – and, ideally, to sit down and drink.  As recent T Ching posts from Charles Cain and Diane Walden pointed out, tea is gaining ground in the U.S., and can be enjoyed in many different ways.  A quick cup of loose-leaf tea beats a tea bag any day!  It’s all in how you present it. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on different options for tea businesses – if you have a business yourself, or if you’ve thought about what type you might like to open some day.  I’m very interested to know what your pro / con lists would be!

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