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Tea time

By Erin M. Loewe
April 03, 2013

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Photo: Aaron Leitz Photography, Seattle
First setting its sights on augmenting the country’s coffee habits more than 30 years ago, Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. now wants to revolutionize the American tea-drinking experience. In its quest for continued growth and innovation, the coffee powerhouse acquired the Tazo Tea brand in 1999, but just opened its first tea-only retail location at Seattle’s University Village in November 2012. Unlike Starbucks, which is focused more on crafting drinks, Tazo Tea specializes in selling loose gourmet tea and helping clients customize unique blends to drink at home.

Daniele Monti, creative director for brand expression at Starbucks, says that besides mall tea purveyor Teavana (which, consequently, Starbucks acquired just two days after opening Tazo Tea), there were no other super-premium tea
retailers to speak of. “During the research stage, we quickly decided there was strong equity in Tazo as a brand,” he says. “By up-leveling the experience of the world of tea by offering 80-plus brands in a way that’s almost entirely customizable, that exposes ingredients and that involves the customer in touchpoints in the store, we were sure Starbucks was strong enough.”

The 1,700-sq.-ft. prototype is a modern mix of grays, greens and whites, with touches of gold. A locally sourced white oak dominates the floor, but mingles with a charcoal-colored polished concrete in the bar and community area in the back of the store.

Starbucks’ in-house design team worked diligently to transform the existing space and craft a unique brand identity for Tazo. Lionel Sussman, director for concepts design at Starbucks, says that Tazo Tea will be LEED-certified like all new Starbucks stores, and that the look reflects the values of Tazo’s target audience. “We tried to keep in mind what we knew about our customers; what would be an ideal place they would live,” he says. “We thought about a couple who lived in an ideal place, maybe a refurbished loft with old wood, who might not want to spend money on changing the wood, but might have expensive art or light fixtures.”

A creamy white chandelier sets an elegant tone for the space, which is dotted by Victorian garden-inspired topiaries and two “tea trees,” made with poles and rotating “branches” to artfully display the many unique ingredients to create a custom blend.

One of the most exciting parts of the store is the blending station, Sussman says. “You can explore the ingredients with the partners making teas, and then have custom tea made right there,” he adds. (Much like Starbucks refers to their coffee brewers as “baristas,” Tazo calls its expert employees “tea partners.”)

Lining the walls are custom fixtures and a track system that artfully display tea and accessories. Sussman says that the freestanding fixtures were designed internally and fabricated locally. Also along the walls are tea towers, which house glass canisters of whole tea, behind point-of-sale counters. Meggan Peterschick, Tazo Tea’s retail store manager, worked closely with the Starbucks design team and says this is one of her favorite in-store features. “You can pull out each canister, so that the customer can see it, smell it and really experience it,” she explains. “It can be intellectually intimidating, so we wanted people to see what a difference it was, and feel free to interact with tea partners and to ask more questions.”

While the store does have a beverage bar in the back of the store, it is not Tazo Tea’s dominant feature, as it is in a typical Starbucks. A variety of tea creations are, however, brewed on-site at the  sparkling white quartz bar. “The top is gold marble with gold trim material around the bar,” Sussman says. “We wanted it to be beautiful and elegant, but we didn’t want it to be the main thing in the store. Beverage is more secondary; we wanted the retail to come forward.”

A whimsical panel graphic spans the back wall of the store behind the white community table, where patrons can sip tea, or where partners can hold special educational tastings and demonstrations. Golden brass pendants dangle from above to illuminate the space.

“There’s an aspect of magic related to Tazo,” Monti says. “This is not an entirely new thing; even in the early ’90s, you probably remember all of the fantasy mysticism around the brand, [especially] the Asian-inspired part of the brand. We wanted to preserve that attitude, but also make it more contemporary.”

There is some uncertainty as to future stores based off of this prototype, given the recent acquisition of Teavana. But, if Starbucks does decide to expand, there is much to build on with Tazo’s charge to itself and its patrons to “Steep. Sip. Explore.”