mmmn, as I posed the question, I feel duty bound to make a contributory response, but your analysis is too detailed for me to provide (due to time restraints) a comprehensive response.
I note that you have weighed arguments for and against - are likely to come down on a packaged date - even though
There is a risk in holding ourselves to a higher standard, but someone has to start the trend and show the customers that its OK to expect a little more transparency from their local Specialty Tea Retailer.
I think there is indeed a signifcant risk (of being hoist by one's own petard
) , and would think long and hard before introducing it.
Regarding some of your other thoughts, and some of Chip's desries on labelling - without any concrete best solution in mind, I would offer my own musings.
3 years does not seem uncommonly long for the CTC bagged black teas from Kenya, India and elsewhere - we have sell by dates on the tea products in local grocers that get close to those.
The analogy to wine is very apt, We have sell by dates and / or use by dates on nearly all products in the local convenience stores Food, Confectionary, Pharmaceuticals, Beer, Cider and Lager, even most sugars and vinegars - But nothing on wine, whether the vintage is identified or not.
When wine is purchased from a wine merchant or knowledgeable member of a sales team at a supermarket outlet then advice can be obtained as to whether the wine can be laid down, is best consumed now, later or within a suitable time period. This surely has resonance with Pu Erh, Higher roasted Oolong and the like. Other than great white wines the advice would likely be that it is best to consume within a certain shortish time period this seems to have a bearing on Green Tea and Greenish Oolongs.
Many products (general food supply) have batch identifiers (sometimes even an ID for the packer)
It will be the responsibility of the sales staff to explain the harvest cycles of tea and the fact that while tea is best consumed quickly it never really goes bad.
the staff are to be trained, along lines similar to knowledgeable staff in a wine merchants, why not control your inventory with your own batch labelling - that allows the sales staff to identify any salient data needed to interpret where abouts in the tea cycle this particular packet may be!
Whilst allowing Inventory control at the same time
This will allow our staff to enforce a FIFO (first in first out) method of inventory and give the customer a sense of how old the teas in their cupboard are
Notwithstanding my observations above, I agree wholeheartedly with Chip, that your premium products should disclose as much information as possible about year, harvest time, region, varietal, variations in production (levels of oxidation and roasting and whichever features are most sought after for the tea type in question.
Let us imagine that I walked into one of your stores knowing a little about the teas in question - and a sales representative examining 3 or 4 teas that I was interested in buying could give me differing advice on each of them and explain why his advice was different - I think I would be impressed.
There are many wine enthusiasts who research their product who do not want advice from the sales operation, if they see a vintage for a known appelation they will think they know as much as the sales staff and will make their purchases according to their knowledge of the appelation and their knowledge of the vintage amongst other considerations, therefore for high end products I concur with Chip that the product labelling should display as much information as possible for the tea enthusiast to make his own unaided decisions. Possible Petard
Some teas and some wines are expected to get better with age, many do but some don't.
Some teas and some wines are expected to fade after a short time or a slightly longer time, some do but occasionally they live on and get better.
If your inventory is spread over numerous locations, it may be slightly more onerous to implement, but a method of feedback on how teas are progressing through their life cycle with any surprises fed out to the various locations - this could prove beneficial - special eyecatching promotional material for those unexpectedly improving, and early addition to your process for
edit - those which are deteriorating early
will have to implement policies for discounting teas
The trick is how to gather trusted information - staff who love thiss type of tea? Customer feedback? Tea Chat forum ? I would leave that to you