teaIf I’ve learned one thing from seven years of opening stores and selling online in the U.S. tea industry, it’s this: To be successful in tea, you need to pick a customer and rock his / her world. It can be hard to tell the difference between a business strategy that will make you king of a niche, and one that will leave you floundering in a sea of competition, but it’s often the little differentiators that make all the difference to a company’s long-term success.

The number of tea businesses that are trying to be all things to all people is appalling. Mission statements like “appealing to the casual tea drinker without alienating the connoisseur” set up impossible business challenges. Imagine trying to sell $18,000 economy cars on the same lot as $180,000 luxury sedans. Do you invest in leather chairs? Are the floors Italian marble? Do your sales people wear expensive suits? Is the music Beethoven or Katy Perry? If you try to cater to both customers, you’ll fail to make either happy. There’s a decent chance both will be uncomfortable.

If you have a great location and a beautiful store, you’ll get a ton of curious customers stopping by. If you have good product, attractive merchandising, and engaging sales staff, you’ll convince a lot of those curious customers to buy. But to succeed, you need them to come back. And here’s the rub: The customer who is curious and willing to make a small initial purchase is not necessarily a customer who will EVER become a regular, much less a raving fan.

drinking teaMost Americans appreciate good meat, good cheese, good bread, olive oil, wine, and chocolate. Very few, even of those who consider themselves connoisseurs, actually go to specialty shops for these products (butcher, bakery, chocolatier). Instead, they purchase all of these things at the grocery store. I’m well aware that I can find better products in specialty shops, but I, like most Americans, value my time more than the incrementally better experiences that are available.

The customer who is passionate enough about a specialty food product to go to a specialty food store is a rare breed. This customer has different expectations, different tastes, and different preferences. I absolutely do believe that you’ll get casual consumers intrigued by a connoisseur shop, and you’ll get connoisseurs frequenting a casual store. That said, customers appreciate authenticity, and they can smell a fake a mile away.

Many brands are better able to attract a broader audience by being very narrow and dedicated (that is, intensely authentic) than by trying too hard to appeal to everyone and coming across as generic. Most importantly, the only way to become king of your niche is to do a better job serving a particular type of customer than anyone else.

The key to this lesson for me is that we need to leave the grocery store customer to the grocery store, and create a product collection and shopping experience that is REMARKABLY different from anything else you can find anywhere else. Many industries are so crowded that creating a differentiated brand and experience is nearly impossible. Tea is still very young. Each and every business still has an opportunity to make a lasting impression.

Pick a customer, and go rock his / her world.

This post was first published by T Ching on October 13, 2011.