http://www.flickr.com/photos/53370644@N06/4975884671Tea is definitely taking off in the retail environment.  Most coffee houses now know they really have to offer some semblance of a loose-leaf tea selection.  Restaurants don’t yet, but they will within the decade.  The pressure is on to bring in loose-leaf tea.  Loose-leaf tea is a trend and it’s trendy to have it in stores from high-end department stores to the local kitchen gadget place to Costco.
 
But retailing with a selection of loose-leaf tea and tea-tailing are two different things.  The tea-tailer has taken the time to cup each and every tea in his / her selection, not from one importer or vendor, but from every lead he / she can rightfully find, carefully rounding out what should be a definitive collection of the best teas in each category that can be found through diligent and ongoing effort.  Tea-tailing is not easy, and is not for the faint-hearted.  There is competition and there will be a lot more soon.  Can I share some things we’ve learned over the last few years in a tough economy about survival?

Lesson 1

Be aware of the competition, but don’t try to be them.  Have something unique, proprietary.  With Teavana’s success, there will be lots of Teavana clones springing up all over the U.S. and Canada, but no one can do Teavana as well as Teavana.  Don’t even try unless you want to be an “also ran” and a poor imitation.

Lesson 2
 
Don’t bad mouth the competition.  Sometimes (often) people will come in with gossip about competitors or even things competitors have said about us.  It takes discipline, but silence is such a beautiful thing.  So is a smile.  Rather than let this sort of thing fuel your emotions, decisions, and moves, concentrate on answering this question: What can I do better than I did yesterday?  You should be your toughest competition, and no one should want to compete with you.

Lesson 3

Refine brutally.  Keep and grow what works.  Kill what doesn’t, after it’s had a fair shake.  Sales will be your guide, but so will net profits.

Lesson 4

Don’t grow (expand to more units) just because you can.  Expand because it makes sense.  After being involved in a retail space where partnership problems almost caused a lease being “called” for all the remaining owed, we are extremely cautious about potential expenditures on retail space, what the lease terms and penalties for default are, and who we team up with.  Just last week, we were approached to do a shared-equity space in a retail building in the tourist area of our town by its owners.  The opportunity was brought to our door and, if we hadn’t been through the experience above, we may have gone for it.  Read the fine print and move carefully.  We don’t have money to risk on iffy propositions.  We have had three investment proposals.  Ditto.  All that glitters is not gold.  It might be fool’s gold, or very expensive quicksand!

Lesson 5

Study your industry.  Do you know the names of the top five tea-tailers in North America?  How well funded are they?  Who runs them?  What is their background?  What’s their concept?  Do you know which type of tea makes up over 80% of all tea sales in the U.S.?  Do you know which form of it makes up over 80% of that?  Going against that grain completely is a challenge that requires real planning / solutions.  What trade organizations are in the industry?  How can they benefit you?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/53370644@N06/4976494944/Lesson 6

Learn about social media.  Do you use Twitter and Facebook?  How do you rate on Yelp?  Can people find you easily by googling for tea?  Do you blog?  Do you know your Klout score?  If you are just starting, don’t let any authority make you feel it’s useless, that only a few tea companies get the majority of hits.  The web is a tool for anyone – no matter how far behind you may be.  It takes time to learn how it can help your business.  Nothing and no one is always right.  Even some big tea companies have closed retail locations.  Tea-tailing is such a young industry, everyone with something valuable has a shot.  Most consumers have still never heard of Teavana, the largest tea retailer in the country.  There’s plenty of time; trying to rush it through is a disaster waiting to happen.
 
Attract the best mentors and advisors.  Getting the attention of really solid people who can dramatically help your business takes time.  It takes building credibility.  But if you have a solid business model, great product, and something proprietary, you will attract good people.  Just in the last month, we have had a major name in the tea industry fly to Southern California to test the validity of what he had heard, and two very accomplished businesspeople agree to sit on the Advisory Board we are forming (after three years of refining the concept and before even asking them).  This week, we are having a second visit from a former VP of an international beverage corporation who was referred to us by someone they respect.  That wouldn’t have happened two months after opening our doors.  The people we want and need help from are people who always have tight schedules and don’t do anything that wastes their time.  The Bible says a man’s gift will bring him before kings.  This is a building process, not an overnight sensation.  I’m not a patient person by nature; this is agonizing at times.  No matter how much you love the business, it is sometimes grueling.  Come on … it is.  Building anything worthwhile has time as a key component.  Ultimately, time is your friend because time builds experience and knowledge.
 
Keep the vision, keep the faith, and keep moving forward.  Tea-tailing is heating up and if you can’t take the heat, you will ultimately be forced out of the kitchen.  We hope to be around cooking for a good long time.  My great-grandmother worked in the fields of her Minnesota farm right beside her 70-something bachelor sons at the age of 101, including the day before she went up to bed and fell asleep for the last time.  As a Baby Boomer, I plan to beat her record if I can.  I’ll be looking for you … and hope to meet you at the marathon’s finish line!

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