Influence & The Psychology Behind a Few (Tea) Sales Tactics

What gets us to buy? Influence: Science & Persuasion is a book written by Robert Cialdini on the psychology of buying (or compliance). Despite being written for the every man or every women as a defense against marketing techniques, the book has ironically been adopted as an important work by marketers. Influence includes a diverse array of examples and studies, many of which we encounter very regularly in our lives. It’s a easy and highly relevant read, that is both approachable and eye-opening from an a day to day and macro point of view. In this article, I’ll be breaking down and covering how these sales tactics work specifically in the tea world. There are six key principles covered in the book..

Note: Please note that I’m not condemning these tactics (except in less scrupulous cases), just bringing them to light.

Influence by Robert Cialdini.

Principle #1: Reciprocity

Do someone a favor or give someone a gift and receive one in return. When you do a favor for someone they naturally feel indebted. Most people hate this indebted feeling, and they usually try to figure out some way to return the favor. It is a straightforward concept but more pervasive than we might think (or care to think).

One of Cialdini’s examples is the Hare Krishna society.

The new (fundraising) strategy still involves the solicitation of contributions in public places with much pedestrian traffic (airports are a favorite), but now, before a donation is requested, the target is given a “gift” – a book (usually the Bhagavad Gita)… or in the most cost-effective version, a flower. The unsuspecting passerby who suddenly finds a flower pressed into his hand or pinned to his jacket is under no circumstances allowed to give it back, even if he asserts that he does not want it. “No it is a gift to you,” says the solicitor, refusing to accept it. Only after the Krishna member has thus brought the force of the reciprocation rule to bear on the situation is the target asked to provide a contribution to the society.

Simple? Yes. Effective? Highly. The Hare Krishna society infamously became famous by using this tactics to successfully fundraise despite being considered unusual by the majority of the populace.

A few other tidbits on reciprocity from the book.

  • You don’t need to like the person or organization for reciprocity to have an effect!
  • The exchange often isn’t an equal exchange.

Tea World

How about the structure of a tea shop? It’s rather brilliant. You sit down for a nice relaxing cup of tea.. On the house of course. The longer you stay, the more indebted you feel and the more money you’ll probably end up putting down. Well I stayed an hour so I should buy something. I’ve resorted to not even going to local tea shops, because I know I will be spending money that I’d rather put elsewhere.

Ummm… Free samples. Let’s be real. TeaDB gets more free samples than your average tea head. It’s definitely not because we’re great people, it’s principally because we offer the chance for exposure and marketing.. The ideal vendor exchange for most people that send us tea is free tea for exposure. Everytime we receive one, it evokes the reciprocation instinct. To combat this, I often need to take a step back and really think about the tea.

Note: Free samples can also be a way to get you to put money down. Think about free wine tastings Thursdays at your local local wine shop. Much of the same psychology is behind this.

Principle #2: Commitment & Consistency

In society, we value commitment and consistency. There’s a certain disdain reserved for politicians that renege on their promises or waver in their positioning (damn flip-floppers!). Similarly, once we make a commitment, especially if it’s written or verbal we try to follow through. In the book Cialdini tells the story of a woman who wished to quit smoking. After several unsuccessful attempts, she left a note to all the important people in her life telling them that she was quitting. This is an example of commitment. Like all six principles, this instinct is not inherently a bad thing but can be used against us.

Tea World

How about Teavana’s notorious overpour?  Once you’re committed to buying a tea, they’ll overpour too many leaves and ask if it’s OK. Most people will say it’s fine without even thinking twice.

Another example is the rationalization us tea drinkers do after we place an order to tell ourselves it was a good idea. We don’t like to admit to ourselves or others making a mistake or ordering fake tea. A similar thing has been measured at the racetrack when a bet is placed. Before placing the bet placing the bet the person is considerably less confident than after the bet is placed. I’ve experienced a similar reticence and lack of confidence immediately before and after ordering.

Principle #3: Social Proof

43 facebook friends like this! Do you want to sign up? Social proof is everywhere and is a common technique used to get you to signup. The more the numbers go up, the more effective. The more similar the person identifies with the group the more effective. “Oh Joe like this game so it might be worth trying.

A common compliance technique.. “Your friend Sam told me that you might be interested in our services. Could we schedule a time to discuss what we might be able to offer?” A few other examples..

  • Bartenders salting the tip jar.
  • Laugh Track (proven to be very effective).
  • Celebrity Deaths/Suicides strongly correlated with spikes in suicides.

Tea World

This is one of the more obviously prevalent triggers. Tea marketed as a best-seller. Many online tea stores have a section for most popular items.. How about reading a review or reading a discussion thread on a tea and wanting to try it? Stock is running out, I’ll have to buy now (also triggers scarcity)!

Steepster? 179 people have rated this tea, 64 tasting notes.

Steepster, Facebook
Social Proof. Source: Steepster, Facebook.

Principle #4: Liking

Similar to social proof and a more obvious concept. We tend to like people or things that we can relate to. An example Cialdini uses is tupperware and their marketing strategy (can also be applied to Essential Oils). Tupperware is famous for its wildly successful strategy that involves tupperware parties where housewives sell to other housewives. Rather than having an unfamiliar salesperson doing the selling, tupperware came up with the brilliant strategy to have it conducted by peers (with a commision). Here’s one woman talking in Cialdini’s book:

It’s gotten to the point now where I hate to be invited to Tupperware parties. I’ve got all the containers I need; and if I wanted any more, I could buy another brand cheaper in the store. But when a friend calls up, I feel like I have to go. And when I get there, I feel like I have to buy something. What can I do? It’s for one of my friends.

Tea World

Vendor blogs? When a person develops a personal voice and story behind the tea that we can understand and relate to. We’re usually more likely to purchase from people that are similar to us. I haven’t seen much of it, but using friends as referrals and giving them a small $$ amount is a very common sales technique online and elsewhere.

Principle #5: Authority

Why do conmen/hustlers dress as doctors, lawyers, businessmen, etc? They know that we associate authority with these professions and by dressing up can trick us into believing they are an authority and manipulate us. The book also points to the infamous Milgram experiments which show how far people will go against their better judgement if there’s an authority telling us what to do.

How about Dennis Haysbert in all-state commercials. He’s just an actor, and there’s no real reason to take him seriously as an authority on accident insurance. However, Haysbert’s most notable role is the venerable, respected president in the TV show 24. We carry these fictional associations over (certainly more than we care to believe).

Note: A more negative association is the weatherman, a commonly disliked figure in most local community.

Tea World

How about an interview/endorsement with someone famous and powerful. This affects our image of the entity. Or if we’re to dive further into our own little niche… When an experienced tea drinker (i.e. Marshaln, Hobbes) talks positively about a specific tea, you take note. Or really any positive recommendation from someone that seems to know what they’re talking about. Securing endorsements/exposure from respected authorities can be an effective way to sell tea.

Principle #6: Scarcity

The more exclusive something is, the more we value it. This makes sense in a lot of ways. Truly good deals and other well-priced items tend to sell quickly. We’re conditioned to seek them out. Duh! There’s alot of easy examples of this. Cialdini points at censorship making an item more desirable (Streisand effect).

Ever heard of FOMO!? Very limited production! Less scrupulous businesses will take advantage of our conditioning and manipulate the supposed stock to make items seem more scarce and desirable. Maybe that clearance sale isn’t really a clearance sale. A common real estate technique, (termed getting buyers off the fence according to motley fool million acres) is to tell the interested party that there’s another very interested party. All of a sudden there’s a sense of scarcity and urgency!

Note: Parent’s take note.. This same principle can be applied to telling your kids who not to date!

Tea World

Do you ever feel the need to buy just based off how much stock is left? Ever hit “10000” into the buy now of a White2Tea or Chawangshop item to see how many items they actually have left? How about the pu’erh tenets. Buy now or it will be gone forever? The whole idea of buying big in the third tenet is based off the idea that the good stuff is scarce and won’t always be available.

Note: A few others.. While inventory lasts (implies it will sell out)! Time can also be scarce. “Limited time only”. “Today only”. *cough cough* Pretty much all Black Friday sales.


In the end, this is a book well-worth reading for anyone that runs a tea web store or is simply interested in these sorts of these studies. These tactics are everywhere.. Both in the tea world and outside and I strongly suspect this stuff affects us more than we want to believe..

Scarcity Principle
Limited Time Offer. Scarcity. Source: Amazon.
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7 responses to “Influence & The Psychology Behind a Few (Tea) Sales Tactics”

  1. Okay, guys, what is he up to here? Is it the Black Friday sales he is trying to get us away from, thus leaving more for him? Or maybe Emmett’s December group buy?

    Great topic, James. Whatever the motivation, it works for me ;P

  2. I think he’s subliminally trying to get you to order 10,000 bings of Last Thoughts. That sample tasted so good. Think how happy it would make 2Dog. That friendly lady who writes the DeathByTea blog says it is the best tea she’s ever tried. Respected tea authority James at TeaDB got 217 steeps out of one 9 gram serving before his kidneys exploded. It could sell out any day now… and they’ve chopped down the trees it grew on. Your son would only squander the inheritance anyhow…

  3. I must be getting old, checking the counter for inventory count never occurred to me. Only 18 cakes of 2005 Naka left!

    • Are you sure about that? The above article says: “Less scrupulous businesses will take advantage of our conditioning and manipulate the supposed stock to make items seem more scarce and desirable.” Why don’t you buy those 18 cakes and we’ll see what happens. I don’t question this particular vendor’s scrupulosity but maybe there’s another box of Naka lying around somewhere in the warehouse.

      In fact, I’m willing to bet the extra box of Naka is hidden by the vast piles of Lan Yin. If you’ve got enough room on your credit card, the order system will let you buy 10,000 cakes of “1990’s Blue Mark (Lan Yin mid 90’s)” for a mere $6.5 million… hmmm… is he trying reverse psychology on us now?

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