With movement restrictions in place since the start of the pandemic, it should come as no surprise that consumers have found more pleasure in shopping online. Affirming this is a Visa Consumer Payment Attitudes Study conducted last September stating that nearly three in four people in Singapore shop online more frequently as a result of Covid-19.

Of this 74%, almost half are more inclined to shop from large online marketplaces and will continue to do so even after the pandemic ends — a clear enough reason for businesses to start expanding digitally if they have not done so already.

A perfect case study of this is TWG Tea, the Singapore-owned luxury tea brand which embarked on a global digital expansion last August boasting 20 new official online stores on third-party marketplaces globally. This move has led to significant sales growth for TWG Tea with a reported 98% increase in online retail in 2020 compared to the same 12-month time frame in 2019.

“Our team’s willingness and ability to respond nimbly to the challenges Covid-19 posed has been remarkable. By looking beyond pre-existing brand-owned online and offline presence for growth opportunities, we were able to identify the potential in establishing new official online stores in third party marketplaces,” says TWG Tea’s co-founder and director of corporate communications, Maranda Barnes.

Online expansion has also allowed TWG Tea to enter untapped markets that have a sophisticated tea-drinking culture such as Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. “To clock in e-commerce growth at a time like this, where you extend your online retail reach matters. Adding third-party marketplaces to our e-commerce mix gave us a unique opportunity to identify these markets where TWG Tea is not yet available,” she explains.

TWG Tea flagship online store on Amazon UK - THE EDGE SINGAPORETWG Tea flagship online store on Amazon UK

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Stronger after a recession

Businesses can experience periods of rapid growth after crises and periods of sustained, long-term growth during crises, affirms Barnes. This was a key lesson learnt from her experience launching TWG Tea in 2007, just a few months shy of the global financial crisis in 2008.

“We realised that by investing and making strategic decisions we could weather a crisis and use the down- time to prepare for what we anticipate would be a period of rapid growth in time to come,” she shares. The answer was to have online retail as part of TWG Tea’s retail mix — something it has perfected over the last decade. In 2013, it launched the TWG Tea mobile commerce app — something unheard of in the tea industry — to connect with customers who were increasingly spending their time on their smartphones. Today, the app has over four million users worldwide.

To ensure the luxury experience one receives online is akin to dining at any of its salons or boutiques, Barnes’ team works hard to ensure a level of consistency when it comes to customer engagement activations right down to meticulously hand-wrapping their gift boxes.

“We made a six-figure investment to build an e-commerce warehouse and fulfilment centre in central Singapore to meet the anticipated demand of online orders. As most of our products are packaged by hand, ergonomic workstations were constructed specifically to suit the different teams’ and products’ needs. The plan is to model this concept for our other eCommerce facilities in overseas markets to maintain the same level of luxury,” she details.

Together with her husband, Taha Bouqdib, president, CEO and co-founder of TWG Tea, the pair stand at the helm of this multi-million dollar empire with over 3,000 staff in 17 countries, over 70 physical stores and an online presence in 58 countries.

In this interview with Options, Barnes shares more about TWG Tea’s business strategies and key consumer trends that have emerged from the pandemic.

Aside from digital expansion, what were your other key business activations for the year?
The initial lull period in 1Q2020 was a rare opportunity for us to shift our attention away from constant short-term expansion. Aside from doubling our e-commerce team to support our growing online business and operations, we had to find a way to sustainably train our overseas executives remotely, so our Tea Institute began rolling out digital workshops for all staff based out- side of Singapore.

Thereafter, we launched new e-training modules including an eBrand Experience Workshop to help all team members around the world understand — in practical terms — how they can continue to deliver the TWG Tea experience in their day-to-day jobs. We also developed other professional development workshops, on-the-job training workshops, and tea connoisseurship certifications.

We are also looking into enhancing the user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) of TWGTea.com for markets that have more sophisticated e-commerce capabilities. A key UX feature is a delivery destination option that ensures every customer will be able to get a TWGTea.com experience tailored to market preferences. This includes more language and currency options by the end of the year.

Which TWG Tea outlets were the worst hit during the pandemic?
Travel retail has been among the worst-hit for us. Nevertheless, we have challenged ourselves to develop ways to make it easier for our customers to shop duty-free without having to spend time at the shops. As part of our 2020 focus on establishing new official online stores in third party marketplaces, we partnered with online travel retail platforms including iShopChangi and KrisShop to work with our airport and airline partners to ride out this crisis. Customers can continue to shop online via the duty-free online travel retail platforms and have their teas and accessories delivered right to their doorstep. We also have exclusive travel-themed gift sets such as the Bon Voyage Tea Assortments, available in six options on iShopChangi.

Were your supply chains affected?
Our supply chains have remained largely unaffected due to several reasons. For one, we have sourced directly from tea gardens since TWG Tea’s inception. These long-standing relationships we have established with tea farmers give us priority to the finest tea harvests. This is how we can consistently meet the needs of our customers around the world. Furthermore, TWG Tea is headquartered in Singapore, placing us at the epicentre of source gardens in locations such as Darjeeling and Yunnan. This has helped to avoid any supply chain delays. Our teas are also blended and packaged here in Singapore.

Which regions saw the strongest growth with the digital expansion?
In markets such as Europe, Japan and South Korea where consumers are already proficient with online shopping, they expect to access the full inventory of a global brand. At the same time, they look for a brand experience online that resonates with them. We are building teams in these developed online retail markets to better engage with our customers on both TWGTea.com and in third-party marketplaces.

Moroccan Mint Tea - THE EDGE SINGAPOREMoroccan Mint Tea

Have you noticed any shift in consumer behaviour in the past year?
With people spending more time indoors, the idea of home has grown a lot more important to them, and so they want to enhance their interiors to make it more comfortable, even right down to the way they enjoy their tea.

There is a growing demand for our handmade teacups and teapots, such as the Design Orchid Teapots which are available in nine colours and two sizes. To complete their tea drinking experience at home, our customers are also purchasing our hand-poured tea scented candles, housemade tea-infused shortbread cookies and tea jellies.

Customers are also becoming more environmentally conscious, choosing to invest in items that are reusable, handcrafted and built to last, such as our reusable cotton tea filters and handcrafted tea tins, as well as tea scoops.

We’ve also noticed that consumers are turning to tea as a form of comfort, solace and a sense of personal luxury to combat work-from-home stress and anxiety. They are drawn to our theine-free Chamomile or Marrakech Mint tea bags to bring calm to their evening or our signature 1837 Black Tea or White Sky Tea to brighten their mood throughout the day.

Design Orchid teapot collection - THE EDGE SINGAPOREDesign Orchid teapot collection

Scented candle collection - THE EDGE SINGAPOREScented candle collection

How does TWG Tea ensure that the brand experience is not lost on non-brand owned platforms?
By establishing our own flagship or official online stores in third-party marketplaces, we protect our brand equity and assure customers that they are purchasing genuine TWG Tea products.

We choose to work with marketplaces that have created platforms committed to featuring authentic brand owners, and take on the responsibility of registering and protecting our intellectual property.

We have also paid close attention to providing rich brand and product content such as infographics and short videos. These are generated in-house and tailored to each market and marketplace. This recognises that the shopper accessing us via a marketplace may be at a different point in his or her TWG Tea consumer journey, and requires information to be packaged differently.

What are TWG Tea’s other plans for the future?
We will continue to search for more ways to run our business sustainably. One of our priorities is to avoid using packing materials unnecessarily in our deliveries. We aim to achieve this by creating customised 100% recycled carton boxes which will protect our products and reduce the need for additional cushioning inside the box. The reduced weight of packaging will certainly help reduce our carbon footprint. We are also moving away from the use of plastic when packing our products, except our most fragile tea accessories.

Moon Dance Tea Mooncake Music Box Collection - THE EDGE SINGAPOREThe sound of music

To celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, TWG Tea is gifting customers with a limited edition music box filled with delicious mooncakes, lovingly handcrafted by its patisserie chefs who have delicately accented them with the brand’s signature tea infusions.

The Moon Dance Tea Mooncake Music Box Collection comprises eight mooncake flavours — four traditional and four snow skin — each infused with a bestselling tea flavour complete with delicious lotus or red bean paste and other delightful fillings like fruit or berry puree, chocolate pearls, salted egg yolk or melon seeds.

Completing the limited edition collection is Moon Dance Tea, an exclusive black tea blend infused with a fragrant bouquet of orchard fruits, wild strawberry and sweet lime.

The Moon Dance Tea Mooncake Music Gift Box comes in a set of two mooncakes of your choice paired with Moon Dance Tea at $80, or a set of four mooncakes for $70, available at all TWG Tea Salons and Boutiques from Aug 12 to Sept 21, while stocks last. From now till Aug 20, enjoy an early bird discount with free delivery for orders of six boxes or more at TWGTea.com