Jun 2nd 2010 Issue
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Brew your own teas

Charles Cain - Jun 2nd 2010

Savoring the ritual of tea

There is no substitution for hands-on experience

Try before you buy. Adagio's triniTEA tea maker

Giving customers the opportunity to brew their own tea in-store goes a long way towards accomplishing each of Adagio’s primary retail strategies; making tea accessible to the average consumer, and creating a sensory-rich and entertaining shopping experience. The challenge is to design a smooth process that minimizes waste and labor and maximizes the customer’s experience and satisfaction with the end product.

A few days ago I said precisely the same thing about Blending your own teas. After five years behind the counter of a specialty tea shop I am convinced that the primary obstacle to consumer adoption of loose tea is uncertainty. Customers are hesitant to invest in the proper equipment and more expensive teas because they do not have a working knowledge of tea and tea preparation. For most people, the prospect of walking into a tea shop is intimidating, foreign and confusing. No-one wants to look uneducated, but few know the first thing about tea. Brewing and sampling teas in-store gives customers a fun way to “get their hands dirty” and get familiar with tea.

I envision tea being brewed by the customer for one of three reasons: tea-to-go, comparison cupping, and tea ware testing.

Tea-to-go will be a key offering of the Adagio Retail Store model. There will always be customers looking for a cup of hot or iced tea. Allowing the customer to brew their own tea encourages experimentation (with time, temperature and leaf quantity), promotes familiarity with the process, and reduces the labor burden on the staff who may be busy helping other customers. There are few things more annoying in a store environment than the buzzer screaming that the coffee/tea/fries/etc. are ready but no-one is free to take care of it.

It's anecdotal, certainly, but at one point in time Teavana had a dedicated "tea barista" on staff for brewing customer drinks. Over time they made the strategic business decision to remove this position and share the workload among the rest of the staff. I'm taking this one step further and turning the process over to the customer.

Comparison Cupping is the Holy Grail of tea buying for experienced connoisseurs, and the best way to introduce a casual tea drinker to the difference between premium loose leaf teas and commodity products. I've been in a few tea shops where, every once in a while, the staff would slow down to custom brew a few things for a customer, but this is rare and limited to the availability of the staff. Our plan is to turn the comparison cupping process over to the customer. We'll make cupping trays available (complete with professional ceramic cupping sets, filters, scales, teaspoons and cupping sheets), spend a few minutes teaching the customer how to use the tools, and then set them free to explore the collection. Being able to view and smell four different Keemuns is great. Being able to brew and taste them at my leisure, now THAT is a compelling tea shopping experience! Have you ever been torn over whether to spend that extra $10 or $20 on a better bottle of wine? Would you be more comfortable if you could actually sample a few bottles to make your selection?

Tea ware testing is another key to the Adagio "Tea Experience" strategy. Forget reading the boxes to decide which electric kettle to buy... why don't you just fill each one with water, turn them on and see for yourself how long they take to boil? Curious how easy it is to clean out the tea filter? Brew yourself some tea and take the filter to the sink to clean it out. We won't make every decorative teapot or teacup available for testing, but the core Adagio tea ware collection will be set out on a table equipped with water, drainage and electricity so that you can test the products to your heart's content.

The logistics of this process is pretty simple. We're currently designing a tea bar that will feature the following:

  1. Two water boilers set to different temperatures for green and black tea
  2. Ice bin (for making iced tea)
  3. Hand washing sink
  4. Filtered, cold water dispenser
  5. Teaspoons, gram scales, thermometers and timers for precise measuring and brewing (for those who choose to be picky)
  6. Cupping sets for sampling and paper filters and cups for tea-to-go

Finally, each tea will be stored loose in one pound bulk tea storage tins above each tea's sample jar. This way the customer can access the bulk tea on the sales floor and select the desired amount of leaf for their brew.

At the end of the day, all of these strategies for "creating theater" have a cost in labor, space and complication, but our hope is that they will help to differentiate the Adagio Retail Store and result in dramatic increases in customer loyalty.

Adagio Teas