A Healthy DiscussionHow to talk tea with customers who want a cure-all
By Dan Leif
If you work in specialty tea retail, you likely know this scenario well: A customer walks in, heads right to the counter and, citing a recent study or news report, asks for a product that will help initiate weight loss or lower the risk of cancer. For shop owners who love tea more for the taste than the supposed health benefits, responding to wellness-demanding consumers has never been easy. And the task got a bit more complicated during the last year as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began forcing some specialty tea players to rein in health-related messaging that the government said could only be used for products specifically approved as drugs.
So what exactly should a retailer tell patrons who have health on their brains? How can you answer in a way that’s factually accurate but that doesn’t drive the potential customer away in frustration or confusion? To get some insight, Fresh Cup turned to Suzette Hammond, education director for Adagio Teas, which sells hundreds of varieties of Camellia sinensis through its Web site and three Chicago-area retail locations.
Q: How do you respond to customers who want tea that will do something specific to their bodies?
A: First, we would answer their questions directly with a product. We tell them, “Yes, we have oolong or, yes, we have green tea, let me show you.” Then we talk to them more about why this tea gets talked about a lot. Part is hype but part is the fact that it is a beverage that can be part of a healthy lifestyle. Then maybe while they’re there, we talk to them about how all tea comes from the same plant and say, “If you don’t like the flavor of this type of tea, let’s look at another.” You’re steering the conversation back to a playing field where the person behind the counter feels comfortable. It takes them out of that doctor role and let’s them talk about what tea is and where it comes from.
Q: Some retailers try to avoid talking health altogether, saying that it will just cause consumers to think of tea as a medicine, not a remarkable beverage. Do you share that philosophy?
A: Some places say the health aspect is irrelevant, that it’s insulting to all the wonderful things, culturally and flavor-wise, that are found in it. I respect that approach, and I wish it were that easy. But we can’t do that. It makes customers upset if you do that. If you can’t tell them the correct information, then who can? They’re getting these ideas off TV and the Internet. Are you going to push them back there or help fix the misinformation, one customer at a time?
Q: Is it hard to try to inform customers but not come across as a snob?
A: It’s hard to react in a way that’s appropriate and doesn’t cross that line. You don’t want have to give a customer a paragraph-long answer about something, but you don’t want to blow them off either. People just want to believe they have some sort of control over the health in their lives. They want something that’s helpful. They certainly don’t want to be made to feel stupid, and it’s not their fault all this information is constantly in the media. I’ve heard people get a lecture in tea shops, and right away the customer’s face drops. They feel so stupid and discouraged. Then you’ve lost them. Nothing can repair that. They don’t view teas as something fun anymore.
Q: So much of the health side of tea comes from anecdotal evidence or studies that seem to constantly contradict one another. What can you really say that’s factually accurate?
A: At World Tea Expo this year, Joe Simrany [president of the Tea Association of the USA] gave a talk on this subject, which I think was really needed. He made the point that the FDA is not saying tea is bad for you. They’re just saying in essence that you can’t recommend tea to treat a disease because it hasn’t been approved for that. You can say it’s supportive of a healthy lifestyle. It can be something recommended for maintaining already good health. The key is that there can be no express or implied reference to disease.
Q: Have you seen more consumers approaching tea because of health in the last year?
A: Yeah, a lot of people are approaching us now. Sometimes it comes up at random times. We could be doing a tea and food pairing, and randomly in the middle of a conversation, someone will say, “I’ve heard green tea is healthiest, what kind should I drink?” So we’ll have to say, “OK, let’s address it.” Usually, I find it’s best if you just answer it simply and directly and without outlandish claims. Just say, “I’ve heard that too, and here’s why.” That makes them trust you a little more and they’re willing to continue down the path you started with the class. They feel more comfortable going back to the fun side once you address that nagging little question they wanted to address.