Natural Foods Merchandiser

It's tea time

Let's face it: Tea is hot. From 2000 to 2007, domestic tea sales grew from $1.8 billion to $6.9 billion, according to the Tea Association of the USA, not to mention maintaining 16 years of consecutive growth.

"The tea category is constantly expanding in types, flavors and even brands," says Michele Peters, brand manager at Redco Foods in Little Falls, N.Y. "Part of the current growth is fueled by ready-to-drink teas that are convenient and can be found anywhere."

Grocery stores, supermarkets and natural products stores have been steeped in new tea varieties and names in recent years, bringing the beverage into mainstream and specialty markets.

"Until recently, the majority of U.S. consumers were interested in tea because of its perceived medicinal or functional benefits, drinking tea only when they felt under the weather or for its perceived soothing qualities," says Anne-Marie Phillips, head of sales and marketing at Seattle-based Choice Organic Teas. "With higher-quality, organic and fair-trade tea becoming more readily available in the natural and mainstream grocery, tea is finally starting to get its due; much like micro beer, coffee and chocolate has in the past decade."

Phillips says consumers are becoming increasingly tea savvy and curious, seeking out quality teas and different varieties, and learning to appreciate the nuances among regions, blends and flavors.

Tea has been a favorite drink since its purported discovery by Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung in 2737 B.C. By the 1600s, tea became popular in Europe and the American colonies, and made history on Dec. 16, 1773, with the Boston Tea Party.

Today, tea has multi-tiered popularity. The bulk of tea in the U.S. is sold and consumed iced in the mass market and through food service. Higher-grade teas and organic and flavored varieties, however, appeal to the more sophisticated consumer.

"These [organic and higher-quality] teas are the choice of the consumer who is concerned about the environment, strives for a healthy lifestyle and is college-educated," Phillips says. "They are 18 to 75, middle- to upper-income, and are willing to spend a little extra to support those interests as long as they are assured of quality and value for their dollar."

To brew up some attention from this sophisticated customer, stock a hearty selection and organize it correctly.

"Retailers who have a more robust assortment of teas see the best sales," Peters says. "But since the tea category is so large and can be intimidating, it is key to organize the tea section well so not to deter or overwhelm the consumer."

Retailers who have a more robust assortment of teas see the best sales


"Tea drinkers are typically loyal to a particular brand," Phillips says. "Categorize by brand first, and then by type of tea."

Phillips suggests categorizing teas as follows: black, the most popular in the U.S.; green/oolong/white, which consumers are responding to thanks to media focus on health benefits; herbal, tisane and infusions; functional, therapeutic and medicinal.

"Another way to drive sales in tea is to use floor displays," Peters says, "as many specialty tea sales are impulse purchases."

New and novelty teas can sell well once customers are educated and exposed to the flavors, branding, benefits and price. Phillips suggests throwing a modern-day tea party to introduce customers to different types of teas and compare/contrast traditional and innovative blends.

When it comes to high-end tea, Choice Organic Teas is North America's top-selling certified-organic tea line and the first company to introduce organic and fair-trade certified teas in the U.S., offering more than 70 varieties of black, green, oolong and white teas, and herbal infusions in teabags and loose leaf.

Redco Foods manufactures Salada and Red Rose tea and distributes Garden of the Andes & Teekanne Tea.

"We just launched the 'Unbottle Your Tea' campaign, which educates consumers on the benefits of drinking fresh-brewed iced tea over bottled iced tea," Peters says. "Good for your health, good for your wallet, cheaper to drink fresh-brewed and good for the planet—each year 200 billion plastic beverage bottles end up in landfills in the U.S."

Chris O'Brien is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 8/p. 18,20

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