Tea Clubs

One of the tea world’s biggest failures is its clubs. Numerous retailers offer tea clubs, but few sell substantial memberships. World Tea News explores how 52Teas, Adagio, Imperial Tea Court, Mighty Leaf and Teance are turning things around.

Basic Tea Clubs

The basic idea of a tea club is simple. A customer pays for a set amount of tea in advance (say, 12 4-ounce tins) to be shipped at regular intervals (say, once a month for a year).

While it may be tempting to take the cash and throw surplus tea into a padded envelope once a month, that isn’t what increases memberships, according to Bliss Dake, Mighty Leaf’s vice president of Commerce and Operations, and Ilya Kreymerman. Adagio’s web designer. Their tips for creating a standout tea club follow:

  • Offer multiple time spans and/or styles of clubs to appeal to specific groups of customers. Shorter subscriptions tend to be more popular.
  • Keep prices competitive. Dake said shipping discounts are a major incentive for consumers to join Mighty Leaf’s tea club, and Kreymerman added that shipping bi-monthly helps Adagio keep costs down.
  • List each month’s teas in the club description to increase consumer confidence.
  • Include extras, such as subscriber discounts or gift-friendly packaging.
  • Offer occasional purchase incentives, such as free shipping or bonus tea ware.
  • Strive to find a balanced combination of flavor profiles.
  • Look to coffee subscription sites for inspiration.

Dake and Kreymerman said their tea club memberships are primarily purchased as gifts, encouraging the spread of their brands.

Connoisseur Tea Clubs

At the epicenter of America’s tea renaissance, Imperial Tea Courtowner Roy Fong and Teance owner Winnie Yu offer basic tea club memberships. However, Yu’s Tea Subscription was a platform for connoisseur teas long before it showcased her usual line, and Fong’s upcoming tea club memberships include an Imperial level dedicated to connoisseur teas and a Great Teas of China level focused on the teas he profiles in his new book.

If tea connoisseurship continues to emanate from the San Francisco Bay Area, the shift toward super-premium tea clubs may become a more widespread phenomenon in the coming years.

For 10 years, Fong has offered three basic tea clubs with different mailing frequencies: quarterly, bi-monthly and monthly. Although he has had more than 200 subscribers at once, he feels the program could be better. Soon, Fong said, he will introduce a program with new features:

  • A wider range of memberships, including several dedicated to specific tea types.
  • A free gaiwan, two-cup teapot and two teacups, or gong fu tea set to correspond with each membership.
  • A members-only section of the Imperial Tea Court Web site. (Once logged in, members can learn more about each of the subscriptions’ teas and order teas that are not available elsewhere on the site.)
  • Access to Fong’s rare Lotus Heart Dragonwell (which always has a wait-list).
  • A one-month trial membership option.

Yu began offering Connoisseur Subscriptions in 2008 and added Regular Subscriptions to her Web site in early 2010. Connoisseur Subscriptions outsell Regular Subscriptions eight to one, she said, because of the rarity of the Connoisseur Subscription’s small-batch artisan teas, which are often valued around $650 a pound.

This rarity simultaneously feeds the subscription’s popularity and makes it a challenge to keep up with, Yu said. Despite the fact that her Connoisseur Subscriptions cost upwards of $40 per month for as little as an ounce of tea, they have been so popular that her main difficulty has been running out of tea.

Yu gave the following strategies for success:

 Using membership fees to finance Connoisseur Subscription teas when she is sourcing abroad.

  • Promoting the Connoisseur Subscription in her newsletter, blog and website by highlighting subscription-only teas and her relationships with their producers.
  • Periodically offering shipping discounts.

She added, “I want this program to be something that’s far beyond what we offer at the tea shop. We’re setting the bar higher so people will know there’s a wide, deep, huge world of teas out there.”

Fong and Yu said established customers purchase the majority of their memberships, but gift subscriptions surge during the holidays. Yu noted that people who order for personal consumption typically order her Connoisseur Subscription, while gift givers typically order the Regular Subscription.

A Wholesale Tea Club

As managing member and owner of Zoomdweebie’s Tea Barin Wichita, Kan., Frank Horbelt was creating a huge range of blends. To showcase them, he launched 52Teas, a site with a tea-of-the-week club. It’s based on the Wootprinciple of selling until you’ve sold out, and then introducing something else. In the 18 months since 52Teas’ launch, Horbelt said, the combined revenue from Zoomdweebie’s and 52Teas has risen more than 71 percent.

This story differs from most tea clubs not only by its success, but also by its buyers – Horbelt’s online sales of wholesale tea memberships surpass those of individual memberships. He attributed this to avant-garde blends like Orange Matcha and Maple Bacon. Individuals sometimes prefer to order only specific types of flavors and skip others, but groups tend to balance personal tastes, and tea retailers are in the perfect position to offer unusual blends to groups.

Additionally, Horbelt said, limited weekly tea offerings are a low-risk way for tea businesses to encourage customer loyalty and excitement. He noted, “It gives retailers something new to offer every week without burdening them with a lot of inventory, and it creates sales through scarcity.”