’s time to look back at 2011 and analyze the trends we’ve seen this past year in Southern California regarding specialty tea.  We are in a demographic that is totally “Starbucks drive-through commuter” and we are known to cities like San Diego and Los Angeles as a “chain store town.”  So, it is extremely gratifying to see the interest in loose-leaf tea in an independent tea-centric store beginning to take root after 3.5 years of being open in our plaza location in the suburbs, in the exact middle of a triangle between Palm Springs, Los Angeles, and San Diego.  From here, we get a feeling of what’s happening tea-wise in the entire lower half of Southern California.

Here is what we have noticed in 2011:

  1. An upsurge in oolong sales and interest in the oolong category.  Where this is coming from, I’m not quite sure.  I believe it may be that we are beginning to attract a customer who is not new to tea, who has found us due to our online presence, and who is looking for real quality teas.  At any rate, we have increased our oolong offerings because of it.
  2. There is still almost no interest in yerba mate.  We began with four and have pulled back to two.  When we do get requests, it is almost always from large city tea customers, usually in their 20’s and male.
  3. Ditto matcha, but we are beginning to see nibblings around the edges, and some of that from those wanting matcha for making lattes at home or using it in cooking or for skin care, some of this resulting from reading an article or hearing a TV doctor talk about it.  In fact, whenever Dr. Oz or Oprah mention tea or herbals, we feel a positive sales effect.  Keep it up, you two!
  4. Customers are beginning to do their own at-home research into the benefits of teas and herbals, as we suggest they do.  We have customers now who have a good store of information about the subject, and that is mostly from online study.  We see customers wanting not only to enjoy drinking tea but understand what tea is, where it comes from, and what it can do to enhance their well-being.  Ask our regular customers what plant tea comes from, the difference between tea and herbals, or where rooibos is grown, and they are able to give you quick and correct answers!
  5. The trend from coffee to tea continues, mostly because of problems with caffeine side effects.  We offer both tea and very good Italian coffee and espresso, so we have something to measure by.  We also see many hard-core coffee drinkers wanting to, at the very least, incorporate tea as part of their beverage portfolio, having coffee or espresso in the morning, tea in the afternoon, and an herbal in the evening.
  6. The trend to herbals continues.  Even the amount of caffeine in tea affects some people enough to want to convert to no-caffeine beverages and / or to use herbals as a healthy alternative to sodas.  We also see parents requesting herbals like fruity rooibos blends to wean their soda-drinking kids onto something healthier that also tastes good to them.
  7. A trend toward sweeteners like agave and local honey and more requests for almond and coconut milk.
  8. Our Facebook stats show that a full one-third of our readers there are male, and the largest group is between 31-44.  The second largest group is between 25-31, so the demographic is young, and males are seriously getting into tea.  In fact, in our store, I see more interest in really delving into the study of tea among young males more than any other group.
  9. The trend away from existing or large chains by tea drinkers.  Tea customers seem to reject marketing by big chains to present themselves as “healthy lifestyle leaders” or tea specialists.  They appear to look for independent or truly tea-centric retailers whose owners and employees have done their homework by knowing about their tea and herbals, by taking the time to cup and select the best-tasting teas, and by being willing and able to mentor customers in the subject. 
  10. The interest in accessories that actually work and bring about a good result, as opposed to cutesy things.  Our customers want brewing equipment that is easy to use, easy to clean, high quality, and with high functionality.  And they are willing to pay for them.

All in all, the future looks very bright for specialty tea from our vantage point, but, because of the growing competition, only for those who know their subject, have amazing offerings, have something proprietary that makes them stand out from the crowd, and are in sync with customer demographics and trends.