Ask most customers if they want a hot drink to go with their cake or sandwich and they might be tempted by a cappuccino. A humble tea bag just doesn’t have the same allure as coffee, particularly if customers want to treat themselves. And let’s face it, there’s more theatre around an espresso machine, when you can make a bog-standard cup of tea at home.

But that’s a shame, as quality, speciality tea is a different proposition altogether to most Brits’ usual brew. "The average person isn’t used to very good-quality tea, but if shops spent just a bit more, they could offer their customers a really good and different experience to the one they get at home," says Christine Collins, director at Cup of Tea, which supplies Ronnefeldt Tea.

Indeed, it’s only in recent years that coffee has become quite so high profile everyone used to be happy with instant coffee before they sampled cappuccinos and lattes. Gail Rowley, marketing manager at Mighty Leaf Tea, says: "Coffee has a lot of big-brand advertising behind it, with high-profile high street outlets such as Starbucks and Caffè Nero, while there is no tea equivalent."

Turn of the tide

Yet the tide is turning and Mighty Leaf Tea reports that it is seeing particular interest from new coffee shops and delis, which want to differentiate their tea offering.

Customers are more interested in putting chai on their menu as the sector develops and it becomes more popular, says Drink Me Chai. Its Chai Latte offers that ’latte’ experience that is similar to the coffee experience. Founder Amanda Hamilton adds: "Tea bags do not attract a high retail price, but our product is a powder that uses real, ground spices and is usually made up with steamed milk. The price is similar to a premium hot chocolate or latte. Customers seem to respond to this price, as the product is seen as an alternative to coffee, not compared with a traditional cup of tea."

Ethically sourced teas can be another point of difference, and Country Range has sourced tea from one of the world’s first Rainforest Alliance Certified tea estates for its new range of tea bags, offering a premium blend Kenyan tea with the assurance that it comes 100% from sustainably managed farms. It believes that consumers would like to see more ethically sourced products on menus, while research shows that 92% are willing to pay more for a product perceived to be ethical.

While English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Chamomile and Peppermint are often the most popular varieties with consumers, unsurprisingly, most manufacturers advise shops to stock a lot more across the range of black, green and white teas and herbal infusions. Teapigs recommends that shops start by selling six to eight of its varieties and rec-kons some end up stocking all its 21.

Twinings senior customer marketing manager Andrea Stopher says offering a variety can drive incremental sales. "People don’t want to replicate the experience they have at home they want something slightly dif-ferent and will be interested in meal deals, such as Earl Grey and lemon cake or Assam with a scone."

Chatwins in Nantwich, Cheshire, offers a selection of teas at its four coffee lounges, including decaf, chamomile, and Earl Grey. Says chairman Edward Chatwin: "We only charge 5p extra for these speciality teas and have seen a steady increase in sales of herbal and decaf teas, as more people move away from standard tea for health reasons and are prepared to pay a bit more. It’s easier to offer a range of speciality teas as, unlike coffee, staff don’t need barista training to sell them."

Also, don’t imagine that you have to serve loose-leaf teas to attract tea drinkers, as many consumers are unused to strainers these days, while it’s just not practical when you’re doing takeaways.

"There is a general perception that loose tea is better, as many tea bags contain very finely chopped tea leaves, even tea dust. But at Mighty Leaf Tea, we use exactly the same high-quality whole leaf product in our tea pouches as we do for our loose tea," says Rowley.

If you’re serving a choice of teas then individual string tagged tea bags are a popular choice as these can be displayed front-of- house for consumers to select, says Ward at Country Range.

It can be more important to promote your offer with point-of-sale front-of-house, using branded tent cards, because consumers need to know what they are drinking. Literature to raise awareness of the benefits of ethically sourced products has led to a significant increase in demand, says Ward.

Staff can also be an important weapon: "In general, the staff in coffee shops are coffee drinkers themselves, so they are more enthusiastic about promoting their favourite," says Rowley. "However, where staff are committed tea drinkers, they are much more likely to engage in conversation and actively sell tea."

Sampling or promotions can be a good way to re-educate customers, and some manufacturers even spend time teaching staff about how tea grows, is produced, and how to brew and serve it, as a way of creating confidence around the product.

They can help create the right tea-drinking experience, as good-quality teas are best enjoyed in-house where customers can relax with a pot of tea and savour the whole ’tea ceremony’ experience, according to Café du Monde director Mike Osborne which distributes Newby Teas. "The best way to drink it is from a cup not a mug," he advises. "The water needs to be extremely hot and a pot is much nicer than just a teabag if you present it at the table, there’s a bit more of a ceremony. If you use loose leaves there’s a bit of an upsell stiuation in that you can charge more, even though it doesn’t cost any more."

Indeed, consumers do seem willing to pay more, if the product is right. "Many of our customers are finding that, with Mighty Leaf teas, they can command a similar price to a good cappuccino or latte, whereas ’regular’ tea has always trailed behind coffee in terms of price," reports Rowley.

According to Teapigs, some shops just absorb the extra cost of its premium product, while others put prices up by about 15%, so customers pay £1.60 rather than the usual £1.45. "The difference doesn’t usually register, as it’s still generally below the price of a coffee," explains sales and marketing manager Sofia Buttarazzi.

Belgique bakery chain is an inspiration for any baker or coffee shop owner debating whether to trade up. It used to sell Lipton/Twinings teas for 90p, but decided to introduce 12 Teapigs-branded whole leaf teas as a way of generating extra turnover and margins, and now charges between £1.70-£1.85 a cup. Despite the price hike, sales quadrupled to 25,000 in three months.

Says owner Igor Bakaert: "We marketed them quite aggressively, putting a spread in our menu with a description of each tea, and advertised them in-store. Every three months, we take off the two least popular and replace them with new ones from the range. Our strategy worked, as the products are great quality and offer customers good value."