May 19, 2020: Here’s Why This Date Is One of the Darkest Days of the Modern Tea Era

May 19, 2020, is not just another date on the calendar, nor is it a date that should be remembered fondly. It’s actually one of the most significant or striking dates in our modern-day tea industry, and it will forever be infamous.

On that day, the global COVID-19 pandemic was already months underway, so what happened that was so significant for many tea businesses?

A Dark Day in Tea

Considered by some in the tea industry to be one of the darkest days in tea (of recent memory), May 19, 2020, was the last tracking update for hundreds of thousands of commercial and retail tea shipments, which just disappeared from the face of the planet with no answers.

To see how this personally impacted tea businesses, World Tea News spoke with Glen Bowers, the owner of the online tea shop Crimson Lotus Tea.

“May 19th was just another day,” said Bowers, when reflecting on what happened.

Bowers – whose Seattle-based business specializes in puerh tea, tea education, tea ware and gongfu brewing accessories – sells its pure tea from a warehouse in China. His company relies on China Post subsidiary ePacket to transport product for their Seattle inventory, in addition to shipping products to customers all over the globe. However, Bowers knew that their global shipping practices might be impacted when the COVID-19 lockdowns began.

“The first [COVID-19] case in the U.S. was at a hospital down the street from us,” Bowers said, as he recalled the moments before the global shipping industry came to a halt due to the pandemic. “We knew that something big was going on. We tried to ship some of our stuff to us early, but there were starting to be little delays.”

Before we dig deeper into May 19, 2020, we first need to go over how many tea companies ship/mail customers packages to their doorsteps from China.

Many companies use the ePacket service from China Post. Unlike the U.S. Postal Service, where mail is shipped directly to a receiver through an internal delivery system, ePacket packages are sent by waiting in a queue to be delivered on passenger airplanes. When a passenger plane is leaving China, ePacket packages are delivered when there’s excess room in the storage/luggage cargo of the plane.

This means that a package can be delivered quickly or slowly. Depending on air travel, a package could be waiting for several days – or several weeks – to be loaded onto a passenger plane.

Many small and niche tea companies around the world rely heavily on this service. And, due to many tea companies operating under the capacity of a small business, more direct-ways of shipping are too costly to afford.

During the pandemic, the services of ePacket – in terms of shipping on a consistent basis – was greatly impacted due to international travel bans. Thus, as passenger travel in and out of China came to a halt, commercial and consumer shipments came to a halt as well. This is when dozens or even hundreds of tea companies – such as Crimson Lotus Tea – were negatively impacted.

“The packages that had a last tracking update of May 19th had a span of three-months’ worth of orders,” Bowers explained, detailing when he first noticed an issue with orders being shipped. “There was stuff that had been ordered from the end of February that was tagged with a May 19th final update.”

According to Bowers, it wasn’t until the end of May 2020 that Crimson Lotus Tea realized that three-months’ worth of orders all shared the same tracking update. And after a month, no movement or updates from these packages had yet to come in.

After receiving a large handful of customer complaints, Bowers reached out to his contact with China Post. He was told that all of the missing packages were scanned into the United States and they were on American soil, and they had no further update for any of the missing packages.

After spending more time trying to get answers to what happened to all of these packages, Bowers noticed that the tracking numbers for his orders were starting to become “recycled” and used for other packages.

Bowers explained that three months of packages were totally lost, and those orders were either refunded or re-sent from their China inventory.

At the end of the day, Crimson Lotus Tea lost two-quarters worth of income due to the debacle. The cost was even larger for other small tea businesses, especially those that had to close down their physical operations altogether.

Bowers noted that it wasn’t just about two-quarters worth of losses that hit hard, though; it was also about their consumer base, which was affected by the fiasco, too.

“You add that to the emotional impact of the customers, who don’t want to buy tea as much anymore because of the hassle or the wait,” said Bowers, who revealed that some customers waited for more than six-months to receive their tea orders.

This 2020 shipping issue still impacts the way many of Crimson Lotus Tea’s direct consumers buy their tea – even to this day.

World Tea News also spoke with a handful of other tea companies, including Yunnan Sourcing and Bitterleaf Teas, who shared the same horror story that Crimson Lotus Tea experienced.

Despite the shipping issue not being a unique situation Crimson Lotus Tea, Bowers eventually had to accept that they’d never recoup any of their losses, and they’d have to keep moving forward. And it’s still a sore spot with the company today – as well as many vendors and suppliers within the world of tea.

To help heal from the experience, Crimson Lotus Tea decided to release a commemorative cake of pure tea titled “519 Shanghai Memorial Sheng / Raw Puerh Tea,” which was released earlier this summer – two years after the last tracking update for thousands of packages.

Crimson Lotus Tea also made this commemorative tea cake available for free at one point – one per customer who lost a package of tea due to the May 19, 2020, incident. This was also extended to customers who not only lost a package of tea from Crimson Lotus Tea but who lost a package of tea from any tea company – anywhere.

Bowers shared that Crimson Lotus Tea decided the best way to emotionally move forward was to open their arms to the tea community at large, so everyone impacted could move past this dark-cloud all-together.

Looking back on 2020, Bowers said he has his own theory of what really happened to all of those packages in May. Although he doesn’t know for certain, he theorized that the back-up of ePacket packages was so large that they emptied all of the warehouses and started over with a clean slate. Of course, we may never have a direct answer as to what happened with all of those packages, so Bowers said it’s best to accept what happened, move on and continue working on repairing the damage that was done with valued customers.

When speaking to other tea companies – regarding their stance as to what happened to their packages during the May 19, 2020, incident – many have said that they also believe that China Post Air built too large of a back-log to ship out ePacket packages, and refunding the cost of shipping would have financially crippled China Post Air – so the packages were inevitably destroyed. This, however, is speculative and there’s no concrete proof or evidence.

Note: World Tea News reached out to ePacket representatives, the subsidiary of China Post, and they have yet to respond to questions at the time of publishing this article.

Regardless of what happened to the packages, the world of tea is still recovering from this massive supply-chain issue. Yet, Bowers and Crimson Lotus Tea are a beautiful example of what it means to be resilient in the world of tea, to keep the industry moving forward.

In 2023, when your calendar lands on May 19, remember the resilience of the companies who were negatively impacted by the incident, and remember those who lost everything overnight – all due to one of the darkest days in the modern tea industry.

Cody Wade, also known by his blog name, The Oolong Drunk, has been a tea blogger and tea educator for more than seven years. Wade’s passion for tea started with oolongs, but he has grown to appreciate every umbrella of the tea industry. He’s also given lectures at the Houston Tea Festival, Mid-West Tea Festival and the World Tea Conference + Expo, and he’s forward with his passion with tea education and bringing people together to make the community stronger.

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