The HeyTea shop in the Chaoyang district of Beijing is an expression of svelte minimalism, its LED lettering and black tiles giving off a vaguely retro vibe. On a recent weekend, one of the last truly warm days of early fall, the location was full of upmarket customers — families with strollers, Gen Z-ers in knockoff Supreme streetwear — enjoying the popular cheese tea. On the front facade, right by the door, an illustration of a hand holding a phone displayed a two-dimensional bar code, or QR code. “Scan the code to avoid lines,” a sign read.
The scene was far removed from the days 18 months earlier, when HeyTea, one of the hottest brands in China, was infamous for its long lines. Stories on WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social media and messaging app, of customers waiting two, three, four hours for a cup of tea only served to stoke greater demand. “I think that curiosity, the desire to wait in line because everyone else is doing it, it speaks to something fundamental in human nature,” says Peilin Chan, HeyTea’s chief technology officer. Yet as much as the shop had benefited from the viral marketing, Chan knew it was also unsustainable if HeyTea wanted to become anything more than a pop-culture gimmick. Customers were hiring people to stand in line for them (a practice known as daigou, or ‘“substitute buying”). Long delivery times were spoiling the quality of its teas. Complaints were starting to flood in online.