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ARTICLE Business TipsMay 16, 2016

Zeitgeist e-commerce: selling the perfect niche product

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Finance academic by day and tea aficionado by night, Edward Podolski of the Vintage Tea Company gives the low-down on selling a niche product, from identifying a gap in the market to SEO strategies and being a passionate advocate for your product.

It’s a risky business selling a very niche product, but the internet has opened up marketing possibilities and reach that far surpass the limitations of bricks and mortar stores. In fact, we love the fact that we can find anything on the internet. When niche success story Eric Bandholz launched his company Beardbrand – selling beard and moustache grooming products – sales ran to $120,000 a month within a year. Not only was his finger on the pulse of a serious trend, Bandholz built a great brand around his products, uploading everything from grooming videos to profiles of influential beardsmen on the website.

From Australia, the Vintage Tea Company has emerged at a time when tea is beginning to mean more than Tetley, and tea salons are becoming the new cafes. We get the low-down on selling a niche product from the owner, Edward Podolski.

Can you tell me a little about the back story of this website?

The back story of the webpage is quite unique. I travel on conferences quite a lot and one of my conferences a few years back was held in the Fujian province, which is famous for its oolong rock teas (grown and processed in the Wuyi Mountains). I decided to extend my stay there and spend a week in the remote Wuyi Shan National Reserve to observe first hand how high-quality tea is produced. This was an eye-opening experience. Over the next few years I familiarised myself with the art of producing traditional teas. The idea to start Vintage Tea Company came up quite spontaneously, motivated by my frustration with the difficulty in sourcing high-end products in Australia (or in the West generally). I usually had to use my contacts in China to source tea for myself. I therefore decided to start the website as a way of supplying high-end tea to Australian consumers, but also as an educational endeavour. The website has been running since 2013.

Did it feel risky?

All businesses have to face different types of risk. The internet probably offers fewer risks than bricks and mortar outlets, as the start-up and ongoing costs tend to be lower. However, the internet brings with it other challenges. For example, if I were to open up a bricks and mortar shop, everyone in the local area would immediately know about me. However, when I launched my website, no one knew about it. It is therefore a challenge to bring people’s attention to it and ensure that people do not forget about it.

Did you do much research before you launched? If so, what decisions did you make about your company and website after looking at what was out there?

There was a lot of planning that went into launching the website. I identified a gap in the market for artisan teas fairly early on. However, I needed to do quite a bit of market research to determine whether a market for such teas existed. Tea connoisseurship is not extremely popular in the West (although it is growing), which is why I decided on the online platform. As I mentioned before, although online businesses have their own challenges, when the market for a product is small, this is the preferred outlet due to considerably smaller start-up and ongoing costs.

The website and the packaging look great. Did you outsource design or manage it all in-house?

Thank you! I knew early on the feel that I wanted the website to have. However, being an academic rather than a website developer, I outsourced the website development to a web designer who did a fantastic job in my opinion.

The packaging was entirely designed in-house. I went through numerous concepts with family and friends and finally settled on the design that can be seen on the website.

Do you think having a blog/editorial content is important for e-commerce websites – especially those selling a niche product?

Having a blog is extremely important. Not only is it the best outlet to share your thoughts and expertise in an area, but it is also an excellent way of bringing in traffic to the webpage. More importantly, tea appears at first to be homogenous in nature. For people to pay more for quality (which is hard to ascertain), they must trust you first. I believe that providing as much information to the end customer as possible substantially increases their trust in the company, which is crucial for a premium-quality product.

How do people find you and how do you promote the company?

I believe that word of mouth is the best form of promotion. I therefore try to make sure that all my clients are happy. Advertising generally is not very effective in a low margin market like tea sales; however, I do put quite a lot of effort into SEO strategies. Most of my new clients find Vintage Tea Company through search engines.

What sort of demographic buys your tea? Where are they from?

People buy our teas across all demographics. I believe that tea drinking has no demographic boundaries, which is why it plays such an important role in many cultures. It is one of the few things in this world that almost exclusively unifies people.

I’ve noticed a lot of tea salons opening up here and overseas in the last year. Do you feel there is a particular interest in specialist teas at the moment? If so, why?

Absolutely. I think that consumers all around the world are becoming more sophisticated and are looking for new experiences. We see this with high-end wines and boutique beers. As the population becomes more affluent, it is only natural that people want to experience more exclusive products. However, I hope that people do not view high-end teas as merely something that highlights their social status. For me, high-end tea is an art form that needs to be supported or it will be lost forever.

Is there much competition in e-commerce specialist teas?

Yes and no. There is fierce competition in the online tea market. This forces many vendors to claim that they offer specialised tea to distinguish themselves from the competition. But it seems to me that there are very few vendors who truly specialise in artisan tea.

Where do you find your teas?

I have some contacts in China who help me source teas exclusively from small tea estates that follow century-old methods of producing tea by hand. Many of our teas, such as Shi Feng Longjing tea, are produced from the same tea trees that were used to produce tea for Chinese emperors. Less than 2kg of such teas are exported outside of China, and I am proud to be one of the few retailers of such unique teas.

Can you offer some tips to others thinking of selling a niche product?

Passion is the first and most important factor. If you are not passionate about something, then you will not have the strength to overcome the many setbacks that are destined to occur. Furthermore, how can you enthuse others about your products if you are not passionate about it yourself?

Second, you have to be prepared to do a lot of work. There are many aspects of selling products online, from bookkeeping to managing daily orders. The amount of work tends to be much higher than most people initially expect.

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