Tea is an interesting commodity in that it is both widely sold online, and in brick-and-mortar stores. Whether you’re a die-hard tea enthusiast or lifetime tea drinker, or are just getting into the drink, you may be wondering whether it’s a better choice to buy through online stores, or local tea shops.
Here I give a guide to help you decide which choice works best for you.
Pros and cons of buying online
Buying tea online has the advantage of opening up a staggering amount of variety. Nearly all tea companies have online stores, and with increased globalization, it is even possible to find companies that direct-ship from countries of tea production, such as China or India. Shopping online also opens up the possibility for buying the top-quality loose-leaf artisan teas.
There are several disadvantages to online shopping. One is shipping; thankfully, for tea, this cost is usually relatively low, but it can be substantial when you only want to order a small amount. Online shopping is not suited for a small or casual purchase of a single item; it only makes sense for bulk ordering. When shipping overseas, where costs might run as high as $15 for a box of teas, you need to make an even bigger purchase to make the balance worthwhile.
Another disadvantage is that the staggering amount of variety can be intimidating. How do you know what company to buy from when there are literally hundreds to choose from? And many of these companies, in turn, have hundreds of teas in their catalogs.
Buying online is best when you want to buy a relatively large shipment of loose-leaf tea, when you already have an idea of what you are looking for, when you are price-conscious and want to get the best quality and the lowest prices.
Pros and cons of buying an a brick-and-mortar store
Local brick and mortar stores offer a very different sort of advantages over online buying. One is sampling: you can see, and often smell (and in some stores, even brew and taste) the products you are interested in, before buying them. The face-to-face contact with staff, often the owner in very small businesses, can be useful too, especially if the employees are knowledgeable. Local businesses can also impart a sense of community, so you’re not just buying tea, but contributing to the local community in your city or town. And lastly, if you live near a business, it is easy to drop in casually for a quick, small purchase of a single item.
The biggest disadvantage of local stores is lack of availability. Many people in the U.S. don’t live near any stores selling good loose-leaf tea. Some stores might have a good selection, but not have the best quality or freshness of their teas. Other tea shops might be good, but not cover the sort of product you’re looking for (British tea culture and Japanese tea culture, for example, can be pretty non-overlapping).
So what makes sense for me?
My quick answer would be: it depends. It depends on what you’re looking for, and it depends on where you live and what sorts of businesses are near you. Buying online is better for loose tea, the best quality, getting the best deals, and making large purchases. Buying locally is best for supporting your local community, having face-to-face interactions, seeing the product you’re getting up-close, and for making small, casual purchases.
Alex Zorach is the founder and editor of RateTea, a social review site for tea drinkers. The site has a wealth of information about different styles and regions of production, lists of brands, and reviews of specific teas, as well as local place reviews. Visit our tea map to find local businesses in your area.