“Digital marketing of tea can be game-changing”
Kausshal Dugarr, founder of Teabox, opines that there’s no reason why the industry together cannot come and create a platform where they get an opportunity to sell directly to buyers; even to those based outside India. He also sheds light on some of the company’s innovative strategies like connecting with customers every week on social media to address their concerns in these testing times.
TPCI: What are the key markets that Teabox caters to? What effect has the onset of COVID-19 had on the demand of premium tea in the domestic & international market?
Kausshal Dugarr: The key markets that Teabox caters to predominantly are North America (US), certain countries in Western Europe & India too. Honestly, we did not see any significant drop in demand from COVID because the category of product which we are catering is pretty much the habit of people. In fact, with people staying at home and consuming more tea, the demand only rose.
However, the area where we definitely did face some challenges was our ability to fulfil and ship these products, because the supply chains had been affected; the courier companies had been shut. Due to that, for a significant period of time, we were not able to ship our products. Now, I think we are pretty much back in shape from a supply chain perspective as well.
TPCI: A number of foreign buyers have not been able to make it to India owing to the curbs on movement of people and the ceasing of international travel? What are the possible business models that the industry can explore in this scenario?
Kausshal Dugarr: Right now, a lot of people come, they taste their teas and ship things out. Everything requires a physical touch, feel, look of that product. We are selling B2C. There’s no reason why the industry together cannot come and create a platform where they get an opportunity to sell directly to buyers, even to the buyers outside India. At times, especially during COVID, you can’t tell buyers to come and taste your product.
At teabox.com, our customers don’t come and taste the product. They look at the product, read all the description and purchase it. If the industry could create a way of looking and understanding the product, then COVID or no COVID, you have the ability to reach a much larger audience because physical travel is possible only by a certain amount of people; not everyone who is ending up buying. Many of these guys who come are big wholesalers and not buyers themselves.
The moment you move things digitally, you have the ability to not just reach the big wholesaler, but even the smaller wholesalers and retailers who are willing to pay a higher price in the market. This would hopefully lead to a better value realisation. If the industry adopts this model, it could be a game-changer.
TPCI: According to media reports, the imposition of lockdown has led to serious compromises with the quality of tea? How is Teabox gearing up for this challenge?
Kausshal Dugarr: Teabox is all about direct-from-source, and thankfully we are able to be direct-from-source because we are at the source. Prior to the lockdown, decent amount of teas had been already manufactured. In the usual scenario, many of the samples would have gone outside India as well. But given that everything – shipping, courier, etc. – was going to get stuck, we were able to access and purchase the tea, which was pre-COVID and which could not go out. So, from our perspective, we didn’t even have to compromise on the quality. We were able to get the best teas when the lockdown was lifted of the ones which were manufactured during the pre-lockdown period. Also once the estates started manufacturing post-lockdown, given that we were at the source, our team was able to go to the gardens on a daily basis and we had the ability to get the best from the gardens.
We have been fortunate enough because of our business model and our presence at the source. So irrespective of an overall drop in the quality of tea, which would have happened at a certain time, we got the best tea because we had immediate access and proximity to our states.
TPCI: Earlier during our conversation, you mentioned logistical difficulties and the consequent delays in shipping your products to your clientele. Did this in any way endanger the quality of the tea manufactured before COVID?
Kausshal Dugarr: Not really. Whenever we sell teas out, our tea is protected in all forms from all the major its major enemies like moisture, heat and the presence of oxygen. Once the tea comes into our facility, it is kept in a climate controlled environment. We maintain temperature and humidity, remove all the impurities and vacuum pack it. So, when the tea leaves our facility, it is in the form of vacuum packed loose long leaf tea. Vacuum packaging ensures that there is no air, and hence, no oxygen and that ensures that the quality of the tea is not compromised.
We ensure that the quality of tea is preserved by packaging it within a day or two. So, there’s no loss of quality. Quality loss happens after a week of the tea being produced. With our presence at the source, we stop any deterioration in the quality of tea through our packing process and when it leaves our warehouses, we ensure that there is no quality deterioration whatsoever.
TPCI: Industry experts opine that tea plantations are quite crowded and the workers can be found in unhygienic conditions. This is a cause of alarm for consumers and can seriously jeopardise tea sales? How do you plan to dispel such concerns among your consumers?
Kausshal Dugarr: I don’t agree with this that the tea plantations are quite crowded. Plantations themselves are so big that there is a lot of space. Even if there is a crowd so to speak, there is enough distancing between each of them. Moreover, most of the estates that we work with are pretty hygienic and of ISSO standard. And ideally, tea as a product, cannot be manufactured in unhygienic conditions. From all perspectives, even if they employ thousands of workers, everything is maintained from a very hygienic point of view.
Even after manufacturing these teas, when we keep them in our sourcing centers, we do a significant amount of quality control process where we remove impurities. We literally go through every gram of tea just to check if there’s any unwanted stuff because sometimes it could so happen that while the tea is being packed, a leaf from some other tree might fall into it. Even to that extent, we remove all of that.
We regularly and proactively communicate to our own customers about all the hygienic conditions that we have in our warehouse. In fact during COVID, we have come up with a very strict quality protocol that ensures that there is no direct contact (either by surface or by hand) with the tea. There’s proper use of PPE gear & roasters.
TPCI: As an ec-ommerce platform, going forward, what is going to be your strategy to address some of the concerns mentioned above and ramp up sales?
Kausshal Dugarr: Over the years, we have built a very strong and loyal consumer group that understands and believes in the brand more than anything else. We have been proactively communicating about some of the challenges that we are facing such as the difficulty in shipping out our products. I have personally answered emails of our customers to ensure that they also hear directly from the person who is at the top rather than only from the folks who are on the customer support team. From that perspective, I think that our customers have understood that these are challenging times for us. But through proactive communication, we have been able to solve the possible perceptions, which might have been built.
The other thing that we are doing from a marketing perspective is that on every Wednesday at 8 pm, we have a live Instagram session with our customers and one of our growers. Anyone can ask any question to us. So that way, our conversation becomes much more direct with the consumers as their concerns get addressed and they are also able to get the ground reports rather than what is being said or reported in the media.
Teabox’s founder, Kausshal Dugarr, comes from a family that’s worked in the tea industry. Growing up in Darjeeling, Kausshal graduated in Business from Singapore Management University. He returned home to work in the tea industry. In a short while, Kausshal began to feel that technology could bring about that change that was sorely needed in the 200-year old industry. And he founded DarjeelingTeaXpress, the precursor to what would become Teabox. His vision, that every cup of tea sold will be the freshest cup of tea there is, has driven how the organization has grown. Now backed by strong investors and customers turned investors, Kausshal’s dream for Teabox is to make it India’s first global brand.