Find a good tea vendor could be challenging and expensive. Here are the couple of thoughts and facts which could help to steer you the right direction.
1. Tea Stores online
2. Tea on Tao Bao or other Chinese platforms
3.Chinese Tea Farmers online
4. Tea Directly from the Tea Farm
5. Profiting from Shipping
6. Free Shipping
7. Flat Rate Shipping
8. Buy pu-erh tea on Amazon
9. Buy pu-erh tea on Ebay
11. Curated Tea
1.Tea Stores Online
When buying tea online it’s hard to judge the quality and real value because you have only pictures with description available and neither of it could be saying the truth ( more in Tea Marketing article ) . You don’t want to sample every tea offered neither spend hours reading some smart articles about the tea in order to make a decision. You see price in one shop and then half price of the same name / looking like tea in other shop. Naturally you try to figure out if first is overpriced or second has just lower quality. This is the part when it comes to selection of your vendor.
Well, couple of thoughts:
a) location – is vendor located in place of origin of the products he / she sells or travels from his / her country every year to get new tea or pottery ? ( travel expenses much higher than local vendor’s , life expenses are more than likely different as well )
b) experience & knowledge of local environment – is vendor experienced in purchasing products on the field ? this is very hard to determine since everybody who is coming to China buying a tea or pottery , runs the blogs, Youtube channel , FB etc. And shouting around : “Hey look! We are here at the source! ” Which should make their fans feel : “Cool, they gonna get some good stuff for good prices” Unfortunately that’s not always truth. In the eyes of most Chinese people , still the foreigners are being rated as rich people, so the prices are equivalent to it. I have seen many foreign tea vendors or tea lovers coming to Yunnan and being cheated on tea farm or ripped off in local tea market. Understanding such a “cheating and deceiving” based tea biz doesn’t only require to speak Chinese or have somebody local with you. Knowledge of background stuff helps a lot . Knowing the actual prices and ways of negotiating is hardly being obtained by coming to Yunnan twice a year, but constantly being on tea market or tea farm ( depends what sort of tea biz you are aimed on ) and look around /listen /learn and learn and learn. Lot’s of new things are happening every year and constantly developing tea business which is not shared even on any social media.
I guess this doesn’t apply only with a tea business in China but in other fields in other countries. Just a common sense;-)
c) vendor’s running business costs – is something what is not obvious from the website but it is possible to find out by following the vendor on soc. medias. blogs etc. to get him/her know better ) . Is vendor working ( buying tea, packaging, labeling, shipping etc. ) him self / with family or hires some other people to do? ( costs of employees also vary, depends on country where the shop is located ) Vendor with overwhelming selection of products is more than likely bigger store with few employees handling the packaging works.
Does vendor advertising ? Seeing some website on google 1st page with “ad” sign is not cheap , neither being showed in targeted adverts running around your browser in small “gif” images. ,not mentioning being showed on TV ( unless some nonprofit project ) .
d) vendor’s business concept – is vendor Tea lover or Tea Businessman ? This kind of term is used in China and many vendors of course would claim ” I’m a tea lover who loves his/ hers business” or something like that. Well, we all do:-)
In this case the term “Tea businessman” is not about that. Here it means a person who sells the tea only for the profit , and I can assure you, in China are lot’s of them. From online vendors you can feel it by few ways. Pictures or videos being in some famous tea villages is not one of them ( That’s what more than likely the Tea businessman would do, in other to get more likes and search traffic thanks to the popularity of that place ) .
Mostly you can see it from the concept of website it self. ( pictures, description, other related links ) . Sometimes from soc.media personal profile , blogs or other articles etc. , Of course , busy vendor might not have much time for posting but you should still be able to catch something.
The Chinese tea business is quite messy and enthusiastic tea vendor is the “filter” between you ( tea buyer ) and that chaotic market. That’s the feeling you should be getting from your vendor. The “Tea businessman” will just stick on the site products with famous labels without any personal judgment of it. Logically , because it’s a guaranteed sale and no time to bother actually trying it.
Please note: it doesn’t mean that’s bad. It is just a different business model which works well for many sellers and tea drinkers who understand what they are buying.
There are many random tea vendors all over the internet, Facebook, Instagram or other social medias offering their teas. It is hard to say from the 1st look it hey actually run and understand the tea business. Many young people who achieved decent level of English are trying their luck simply re-selling teas from the local market or local internet. With some of them you might get lucky and buy some nice tea for reasonable price.
Buying tea from Chinese or foreign vendor?
There is no golden rule which is better although there is a myth among some foreign tea drinkers , especially the Russian ones :-).
Many people still believe that all those foreigners running around the tea markets on cheap e-bikes or bikes ( not big SUV car ) , living in shared apartments on rent bases ( not paying the mortgage for overpriced apartment ) , not feeding big family , just them selves without wife requiring expensive jade made jewellery and new Iphone each year , must to have higher price than mentioned local tea businessmen with all those “benefits” mentioned above :-D. Yep, It is kind of funny , because we know many foreign tea suppliers who sell the tea cheaper than local markets do.
The common mistake of tea drinkers is the judging quality , legitimacy ( real / fake ) tea by comparing with prices of other western vendors or websites like Tao Bao!
Some tea vendor can get directly from tea company , factory or their agent for wholesale prices which are different from what is stated on even official websites of those mentioned tea companies. And reason is that there is a still space for tea vendors to make it for living ( space for profit ) . There is no standard margin guideline and also not same wholesale prices for every vendor. Each vendor can buy same tea for different wholesale price ( depends on few factors ) and each vendor also has different expenses , living costs, profit requirements bounded with elements mentioned before.
When one leading vendor sets the price of certain product the others would follow.
Why? For few simple reasons. One of them is make more money ( if the product is overpriced ) and the other is not to raise doubts about legitimacy of their product ( “fake” tea issues ) . Since the not fully understanding such a non transparent pricing of tea , especially pu-erh tea in China, people naturally making their choices carefully and comparing the prices of few shops not in order to just get it cheaper , but to get it in some average / most common price ( feels safe ) , which in many cases could be just missing an opportunity to get a good deal:-(
Buying directly from China or from local vendor?
In simple logic you should be ( at least most of the cases ) getting better deal if buying a tea directly from the place / country of origin. But it has many downsides : like expensive shipping fee , long time delivery ( only EMS can deliver within 3-7 days ) , import tax, inconvenient payment ( not all vendors can support payment via credit card , not mentioning the tea farmers ) . So if you are up to buying 50g of black and 50g of green , better check your local tea vendor.
2.Tea on Tao Bao or other Chinese platforms
Very popular way of some pu-erh tea drinkers how to venture Chinese wild online tea market. Since it’s a Chinese consumer orientated market , some of the prices are overrated for few reasons.
a) “cheap is just cheap” – an old Chinese saying , so many people wouldn’t buy low price product just because afraid it’s not good quality.
b) Protecting the offline customers ( retailers ) which are a more reliable and stable income for tea whole-seller. ( some whole-sale suppliers also sell on TB )
c) re-selling other shops tea – if you ever happen to be in some Chinese tea market , you might notice some shops with very little tea but having a few computers, big light box or any other professional photographing equipment. These are Tao Bao guys:-) What they do, is just re-sell tea from the shops in that market. Having a shop, even small one, on market like Xiong Da or Jin Shi in Kunming is not cheap, so that would show up on price.
In fact, some Taobao vendors just re-sell goods of other TB vendors with higher price, catching up the customers on mentioned “golden rule” cheap is cheap;-)
Yes, you still might get lucky and catch something nice there, but it has a few downsides : you can’t buy a sample there and you can’t get a refund if not buying it in China. Sometimes you can’t even get refund even when you buy it in China , if the failure of the product is not provable by pictures. Also , as it’s well known, many “fake” aged teas or teas from Gu Shu ( ancient tea trees ) and so on. It does require certain skill / knowledge how to shop on Tao Bao and being able translate using automatic online translators is not the important one. Even if your are able determine the fake feedback below the products , the real ones still don’t have to be a genuine. Why?
d) duplicate selling is also one of the very common strategy applied no only on Tao Bao but also any other public online shop platform. Vendor uses two or more different accounts and selling the exact same item just with different prices. The aim is to give a buyer feeling of option to compare and choose the one which seems for him / her to be reasonable and real price for the product.
e) leave positive feedback , we treat you – very common and it’s also known from Ali-express, when vendor was promising to refund the bad goods in exchange for positive feedback. Some of them even clearly state : ” We do not accept anything less than five stars feedback. Four or three stars not helping the situation , only makes it worse. Please contact us before consider to give us lower rating .”
f) plugin for negative feedback – some TB vendors have a software / plugin to see which buyer leaves negative feedback in other shops , then they might refuse to sell anything to buyer who wasn’t happy with previous purchase. ( So some people are generally afraid to leave any negative feedback )
Taobao is a good way how to play a “roulette” and get some tea with wrapper which you might not get from other online tea shops. I purposely highlighted that, because that’s what might only be different. It’s high competition out there, so it’s very hard to sell “genuine tea” ( name , price equivalent to the tea quality / grade and origin ) .
There are some smart ways how to buy on TB, like sharing orders , but that requires to be in certain group or follow the forums. It’s an opportunity to get some samples before purchasing the full cake, but is also set up on trust to the collector / TB buyer who claims to be profiting only from getting a share in form of free sample from each product.
It used to be a good way of getting some good deal but it also has been already commercialized and used as a business model.
In most of the cases The Collector is not sharing exact link to the teas he/she is going to buy and if so, there is a still big opportunity to make money. on it Exactly the same tea can be sold on TaoBao for many different prices by many different vendors, even same type of storage – that could be caused either by re-selling case ( as mentioned above ) or marketing strategy from some vendors ( give a feel that the cheaper one is a good deal ).
In any case , the “smart collector” would link the most expensive one and buy the cheapest one. And of course there is a space for making some extras on shipping and handling fees.
For the final customer / tea drinker those factors don’t really have to be disturbing only the fact that if desired full product after trying and liking the sample, the full price might not be reasonable.
3. Chinese tea farmers online
As many of you probably have noticed, there are more and more tea farmers available on Facebook , Instagram etc. Sometimes claim to be a son , daughter , sister of the tea farmer or any other very close relative which suppose ti make a tea drinker / buyer feel getting a better deal because of direct tea sourcing. This kind of concept exists on Chinese online shop platforms many years , some of them could be real but most of them are fake ( The pictures of hugging the old tea tree is not really good proof though. ) . What is the situation on foreign online world with this we haven’t surveyed, but here is the something you can think about:
a) language barrier – the tea farmer ( specially Yunnan ones ) sometimes can’t even speak proper Mandarin Chinese , not mentioning English.
b) internet skills – tea farmer hardly uses internet ,not mentioning the special software to get an access to blocked social medias like FB or Instagram. Not mentioning put together some decent online shop based website …and in English 🙂
c) international shipping – there are no many shipping options available in small towns in China , not mentioning the village somewhere in the mountains. So for 100g of tea you would have to pay shipping fee calculated as 1kg already.
d) tea farmer relatives – good to know a little bit about Chinese language here though. Chinese people might address each other “jie jie” , “ge ge” – sister , brother , even without being actually relatives but only friends.
OK, lets skip all that and assume that the person on FB is:
a) farmers close relative – well, again , it’s good to know the culture and understand economy situation in China. If you can communicate in foreign language and actually capable of doing business with foreigners , you are possessing a valuable skill set which you are going to turn into the financial profit. Simply said , you are not doing it for free. Which means , you will add your price to the original price of tea from the farm and usually in same range as other tea vendors.
b) actual farmer – there is big difference in price per gram if you buy 1 ton , 10kg or just 50g. For example our last trip to Mang Fei , where the 1kg price difference between buying 1t or 10-50kg was four times. So doing the weighting, packaging , labeling and shipping is extra work which you obviously have to pay for…. as you would pay the regular tea vendor.
Some tea processing companies / factories or tea farmers do their retail business. Selling 100g packed tea in box with their logo etc. But they are not doing it to give customer better deal, they do it to make more money or just make any money if not wholesale buyers not coming over. Because no farmer is happy to waste time with packaging 25g samples, sometimes they are not even get bothered to sell you 5kg , you have to take whole box 10 – 15kg.
And again, if farmer can see the market prices ( prices of other online shops ) he/ she will more than likely apply similar range.
You might notice that some of them even have bigger selection of teas, not only those they produce , so at that stage they are becoming a tea vendor / re-seller and so the retail prices are applied again. In very tea touristic places the tea farmers are not eager to do a wholesale anymore because making more money on retail sales during the harvest seasons. We are happy for them and avoiding them:-)
So is it better to buy from tea farmer or tea vendor?
If you are committed to buy bigger amount of one or few types of tea which tea farmer actually produces, then you might get a better deal from the tea farmer ( but not always true , more in point 4. ) .
Some people feel better when supporting the tea farmer by buying their tea directly ( even if buying small amounts ) rather than via tea vendor who buys from that farmer big bulks. We absolutely support that , although it might not seem like that. Many tea farmers have no other job and if they don’t make enough sales during harvesting seasons, they must a look on other solutions. So if you are sure that you are actually buying directly and happy with price / quality ratio, please do buy tea from them.
4.Tea directly from the Tea Farm
This is one of the common myths among the tea buyers : buying directly from the tea farmer is better and cheaper.
This is unfortunately not always true for few simple reasons:
1) processing – not every tea farmer actually can handle processing of their fresh tea leafs. Many of them only sell fresh tea to the processing company . Some of the farmers pay to this company to process their fresh tea leafs so they can sell it to random tea travelers / small buyers. So price could be very same or even more expensive than buying from a middleman . Some of them are trying to do the processing them self’s but not always with acceptable output.
2) knowing a market price – not every farmer knows actual market price of the tea and expenses of the tea vendor coming to his farm. So it’s very common that you’ll get offered very high price based on farmers assumptions how much you could pay ( foreigners always get higher bid , even if come over with local ) , how much his tea worth compare to what they hear about prices from around. Which usually is comparing with famous places like Laobanzhan or Bingdao. So you would have to have a very good understanding of local economy and prices of tea, to avoid being ripped off.
3) cheating – now, that might sound like casting a bad light on poor farmers , but unfortunately some of them already “smarted up”. Please note: that comes form our personal experience when dealing with some tea farmers and witnessing cases of other vendors being cheated. Details , solutions and how to avoid being cheated? This unfortunately we are not going to share with you. This part is of the each vendor’s “know how” … thanks for understanding 🙂
( you might get a bit closer picture if read trough our previous blogs )
5.Profiting from Shipping
In order to keep low prices of products , some vendors choose to make it up on the shipping fee. This is a very common practice in any online sales and easiest way to compare is just order an item of similar character and weight from different vendors.
Payment right after the order
is the way which the most of online shops are set up. It is convenient and safe but what you don’t know is that you might be overpaying for shipping fee. To each item has to be assigned weight including the packaging box as it would be ordered and send individually. If you choose to order more items together , the overall weigh is going to be multiplied by the preset but in reality it’s lower ( since the common box is not same weight as many small individual boxes together ) .
Example: 357g pu-erh tea cake can be put in 100g box. Box for 3 cakes is 150g and not 300g as you will be charged for. ( could be 6 – 10$ difference, depends on destination country ) .
There is no secret that no postal service or courier work for free. The term “Free Shipping” obviously means “Shipping Fee Included” , which is fine in order give a customer final price to be paid. Unfortunately it covers the actual price of the product ( tea in our case ) and therefore makes more difficult to compare with other vendors or even between other products without shipping from the same seller / shop. Fair vendor will be clear about the costs providing the price of the product and price for the shipping.
Some online shop platforms push the vendors to use the “Free Shipping” option on their products, claiming that helps to their sales ( sometimes even downgrade the item in search result if the Free Shipping not assigned ) , but usually the real reason behind that is , that those platforms take % from listed price of the product ( not the shipping fee included ). So if vendor includes the shipping fee into the actual price of the product, the online shop provider / company makes more money.
7. Flat Rate Shipping
In certain extent ,it does make a sense in national ( in one country ) parcels or within some part of Europe. Like flat rate per 1kg or up to 2kg. Distances from China to various countries are very different , so the prices are. Offering a flat rate for all countries means that some of you overpaying and some of you might get a ” better “ deal ( specially those countries where EMS small pack is not supported ). The way this concept is set , the vendor counts with losses on shipping fee which has to be compensated with margin on tea . If vendor offers same price of shipping fee of 1kg parcel as 10kg parcel promising the arrival time from China within a month , means that money has to be made different way. ( product price not = quality ). This type of ” All you can eat ” marketing concept gives a customer feel to use an opportunity of cheap shipping and buy more, not only 50g of tea. And that’s the way where vendor gets his profit on high margin.
8.Buy pu-erh tea on Amazon
Very convenient way of buying the pu-erh tea or any other tea especially for US customers if the goods are actually stored in Amazon’s warehouse , because can be delivered next day after the purchase. Due to the complexity and inconvenience for regular vendors , there is no such a big selection of tea or pu-erh tea compare to Ebay. Some tea shops keep the account just in order to attract more customers rather than expecting to sell more tea there. Yet , due to the competition there , average to below average quality pu-erh tea is offered and sourced from bigger cities like Shanghai , Guangzhou , HK ( wet stored tea ).
9.Buy pu-erh tea on Ebay
More than 14k entries will pop out when you type “pu-erh tea” term in Ebay’s search box , which tells you how price driven this platform is. That causes all those 20 CNY fake Lao Bang Zhan or Bing Dao cakes are sold there as well ( refer to pictures on “Fake Tea” blog here ) with many others. Items are very often offered with “Free Shipping” tag ( ref. ,mentioned above ) and that includes all Ebay fees as well of course . Sometimes the prices with free shipping are lower than the shipping fee from places like Kunming it self. So again , the most of the teas are sourced from bigger cities like mentioned in Amazon’s case ( cities with better international shipping conditions ). Unfortunately most of those places are located in areas with high humidity , so the tea is equivalent to that.
Common strategy not only in tea business , yet I believe it’s worth to mention , especially for puerh tea , which with aging gain on price.
Same as buy 1 get one free ( you pay for both anyway ) , free shipping ( you pay for shipping as well ) , XX% discount on Black Friday, Cyber Monday and whatever Saturday on all our products ( which means that before you were overpaying , because in fact it could be cheaper of that XX% ). In some of those Black and Cyber days I’ve seen discounts as big as 60% !!!
One will think, how is that possible? Yes, it is just playing with your mind. Giving you a feel now is the right time to buy , not tomorrow or any other day you would need so. Good puerh gains on price every year ( unless the economy stagnation, which is happening lately ) , makes no sense to do it other way around. Makes sense to discount last year’s green tea , some black tea and oolong tea.
I pottery is discounted , it is either has some flaws ( that’s the way we do ) or the price is very high , so there is a space for this marketing trick of XX% discount.
Any discount has to make a sense , like buying bigger amount , pre-order or product can not be sold for current price ( worth lower price ) .
11. Curated Tea
It doesn’t take much effort and investment to open a small shop in local tea market on some top floors ( cheaper rents ) , equip your self with camera , lights , tea ware and source any possible profitable product from there. Once I was offered to buy an old shu puerh from famous tea factory and supplier showed me that this piece is sold on TB for triple price ( so lots of space for profit ) . I took a sample and wasn’t happy with what was in my cup. Tea was dry, no body, lack of any shu proprieties we like. Just simple dark wood water with old aroma of Kunming dry storage. Nice old looking wrapper and fact of aged puerh with very good profit opportunity still hadn’t convinced us to put it in our shop. The tea businessman would do otherwise. To put in shop every week tons of teas it doesn’t mean that vendor is experienced and takes him/her only few sips to detect if tea is good or not and very lucky to get a hands ( to actually drink ) on mostly good tea, so can do also other things during the day . That means , that vendor doesn’t really choose the tea by personal preference but follow the rule of “everybody taste is different” and throw it on website / shop with philosophy “every tea has it’s buyer” . Entering such a tea supermarket makes , especially beginners , confused and they finding them selves hard to choose anything , so vendor has to make an additional packages like: 1) tea clubs 2) monthly subscriptions 3) curated selections 4) other subcategories which would make any kind of narrow selection from huge offer they have.
From curated tea vendors you obtain a tea which has been selected by actual taste preference so it has a “signature” ( the vendor’s style / preference or whatever you choose to call it ) . The beauty of this is that you can find a vendor or more vendors who have a taste matching yours or the vendor/s who are specialize on particular tea more than others. And if you are not a person who likes just sample various shops , then spend hours / days searching particular tea for cheapest possible price from other sources, then the curated tea shop is right choice for you.
There is a plenty of tea in China and we do not think that all of it deserves our clientele attention. Having less to offer doesn’t mean having less experience !
There is psychological effect / influence of shopper who sees the huge selection of products and each product in X variations and feel like entering a professional and dedicated store where can get the best deal. Yes , it does work. I bought my mountain bike in store like this with the very same mind in my head that time;-)