In America, buying tea in a store is usually a pretty straightforward experience. There is a counter, with a wall of tea tins and a sales associate or two. You walk in, take a look at the menu, perhaps ask a few questions, smell a tea or two and make your purchase. The tea is weighed, and you head on out. Besides the exotic quality of being confronted by a wall of color-coded tins, there is nothing unique about making a purchase, nothing to distinguish the experience from buying clothes, books, or anything else.

You can imagine then the surprise of entering a Chinese tea market for the first time and being confronted with a very different ‘sales model.’ In China, the retail environment of tea is totally different, and perhaps, more suited to the product being sold.

To begin, you aren’t generally going to stumble upon tea shops in big retail shopping centers. Perhaps there will be a Ten Fu Tea outlet or two next to the Walmart and jewelry stores, but that is a modern anomaly, and doesn’t offer us a new perspective on what tea buying can be. When you shop for tea, you aren’t going to be stumbling in, wandering and window shopping like mall tea chains in the west. Instead, tea shops are clustered together into tea districts or markets. A tea district can take up a few city blocks. A market can be an enormous labyrinthine building with tea shops stretching in every direction. At first, this can be a little intimidating. Yet, in america, is it any different for clothing stores? They group together knowing that proximity to each other increases foot traffic of the right kind of customer. Their competitors keep them in check with prices, and they can refer people to other stores for products they don’t have. Such is the same in tea markets across China. You go to a tea market as a destination, specifically interested in learning more about tea or buying tea.

Inside a tea market are small shops, usually no bigger than 500 square feet. They are almost always staffed by the person or family that owns the shop. Any tea shop will sell the basics like Tieguanyin, or whatever regional green tea is in season, but each shop will also have a specialty of some kind. Some shops will have more pu’er, some shops are actually owned by a family of farmers, so they specialize in the tea that they grow themselves.

You walk in to a market and think you will be able to window shop everyone’s wares and then make a buying decision, but this is not the case. There is no impersonal buying and selling of tea from behind counters. Sure, every shop will have some yixing pots in the windows, but if you slow down to look in front of someone’s shop, they will invite you in. At first, you think that they are taking the hard-sell approach and trying to get you obligated to make a purchase by offering you a free sample. They aren’t. If that were their goal, they would give you the tea in a little plastic cup while standing and hand you a menu with prices. Instead, they ask you to sit down at their table.

We aren’t talking about a counter with various samples made up. No, tea shops in China have full on gongfu tea ceremony set-ups with space for four to eight people. Usually if you are invited in, you will be the only person in a shop for an hour or more. When you sit down, the owner of the shop will introduce themselves and start pouring tea. They don’t ask you what tea you are looking to buy, they just brew whatever they are in the mood for. After you drink a few cups of tea together, they will ask you about yourself, and ask what you thought of the tea. This is how they get a better idea of your needs. If you respond by talking price and requesting specifics, they understand that you are looking to make a purchase and move on. If you instead discuss your thoughts on the flavor profiles of the tea, you will be invited to try more tea, just for the sake of discussion.

You can spend a whole day sampling teas and chatting with a vendor. By the end of the day, you are good friends, and your conversations have touched on literature, philosophy, fashion, weather, and everything under the sun. When you really have to go you ask if they would be willing to sell you some of your favorites and they will bag them up for you. Price is discussed only if you ask, and usually the vendor feels guilty to be charging you at all. Of course, they need to make money to stay in business, but they sell tea because they love it, and want to share. They make enough to keep going and keep searching out great new teas.

At the end of a day you leave with more than tea. You have an experience, a deeper connection to the tea you will continue to drink at home. You have new knowledge on tea, and new stories to tell your friends. You will return to the same vendor next time because you like them personally, and because you trust their judgment of tea, knowing that they will pick samples you really love to brew up. You also return to them because you know that you will be welcomed back as a friend.

This is the tea buying experience that provided the backdrop for my own love affair with tea culture. This is the setting of all the humility, hospitality and beauty that I wanted to share beyond the borders of China. This kind of tasting and buying experience creates lasting connections and enforces a transaction that is not just money for goods, but rather a flow of knowledge and stories and inspiration. The physical product of the tea is only part of the equation.

The biggest paradox of this, and a particularly interesting topic to reflect on is that Verdant Tea is an online tea retailer. We are just a few people sitting in a beautiful brick and wood loft space in the warehouse district of downtown Minneapolis, packing tea and sending it out to homes and offices around the world. Where is the connection? This is a question that every online business should be asking. Too many people praise the ease of starting an online business as a cheaper way to get going than a store, luring more and more people into putting products up on a shopping cart template and waiting for the money to come in.

I didn’t start an online business because I thought it would be easier. I managed a retail shop and a brick and mortar tea wholesale business after returning from my tea research grant in China. It had its challenges, but the financial barriers for doing direct import and selling online were just as great. Starting Verdant Tea as an online business was a conscious decision to replicate the experience of tasting and buying tea in China as closely as possible in the western market.

Does it sound contradictory? An online business loses the person-to-person connection that made shopping for tea in China so rewarding. Yet in the process, so much can be gained.

A retail location has only a few employees, and in America, to turn a profit, that store has to be full all the time, with employees helping customers and transactions ringing up. Rent and salaries are just a lot higher here. No one customer can get the full attention of a tea sales associate for more than a few minutes- just enough time to explain the origins of a tea or two and help the customer pick what they want.

Contrast that to a website like Verdant Tea. Every product page is full of pictures. More and more have video. They all have links to long articles on subjects ranging from tea culture to brewing techniques. Every article allows commenting, and through this commenting discusins can be started. A single customer can hang out in our “shop” for hours and hours. We sacrifice the ability to serve tea during that time, but gain the ability to provide an immense amount of knowledge for those interested in learning. This is our way of replicating that crucial element of getting to know the vendor and lingering through the afternoon before deciding what to get.

For the same reason that people can hang out longer in our “shop” than they can in a brick and mortar shop, we are able to welcome people more effectively. A shop can only hold a dozen people or so. Our “shop,” supported by a devoted server and a backup server, can potentially hold tens of thousands of people at a time. We want people to visit, whether or not they are making a purchase. We have room for everyone. While we can’t welcome a customer in person, we do so through warm and welcoming colors, ease of navigation, simplicity of layout and checkout, and a tone of respect and kindness. Every week we add more functionality to the site to make it as welcoming as possible with the goal of replicating that gesture of “sit down, have some tea.”

In every action we take, we think first, will this bring us closer to the experience of tea in China? Just as vendors will brew up sample after sample in China, we offer 7g sample sizes, and hand-pick an extra sample that we think a customer might like based on their order. Hand written notes are our gesture of personal communication. Participation in communities like Facebook, Steepster, Reddit, Twitter and Pinterest are our way of extending the discussion that happens in tea shops.

Sure, brick and mortar business has its advantages, but our goal is to get as close as possible to translating the experience of tea drinking in China while making it sustainable enough to guarantee its long term success and impact. For us, the online model was the most sensible approach to fostering real engagement and community.

What’s next? The future is bright. Please feel free to comment with any ideas on making the online experience even more engaging and personal. Live webcasts perhaps? More video? Customer loyalty programs? Clearly online business has disadvantages in person-to-person communication, but hopefully this article makes clear a few of the ways that business online allows for greater freedom of presentation. How else can online retail be more friendly, more engaging, and more real in the tea industry and beyond?