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Is tea ready for its 'Starbucks moment'?

Joel Saget | AFP | Getty Images

Tea may be the world's most consumed beverage in terms of volume, but as far as retail sales go, it still falls short of its peers like coffee and carbonates.

The world consumed a whopping 290 billion liters of tea in 2012, but that translated to just $40.7 billion in retail sales, compared to $75.7 billion for coffee and $183 billion in carbonates for the same period, according to data from Euromonitor.

The research firm says the tea industry could be on a cusp of a major consumption shift which, if capitalized opportunistically, could result in a boom similar to the coffee craze seen in the past decade that spawned ubiquitous brands like Starbucks.

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Euromonitor cites changing consumer preferences in emerging markets, which could herald changes in the demand for tea.

"Consumers are switching from unpackaged tea sold in rural, open-air marketplaces to branded, packaged teas sold in more modern retail outlets," said the report.

While traditional drinkers maintain a preference for local brands and flavors, there is a strong demand for convenience, making instant tea's growth potential "comparable to instant coffee's global dominance" it added.

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Over the past two decades, the coffee industry, helmed by the likes of Starbucks, has successfully created a "coffee shop market" currently worth $41 billion, by leveraging on the food service space, Euromonitor observed.

No comparable data is available for tea, but the potential is undeniable.

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"The advantages of tea lie it its variety in types and flavors, positioning, and even eating occasions, as it can serve equally well as a standalone snack or a healthier soft drink alternative during mealtimes," said Euromonitor.

"This begs the question of just how much modern food service value tea could potentially support with the right shift in global tea culture, the right branding, and the right operators driving expansion in the category," the report added.

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Some major players have already started on this process, as seen by Starbucks's acquisition of U.S. tea retailer Teavana in 2012, which Euromonitor calls the start of a global-tea themed restaurant space.

With the consumption volumes of tea continuing to outpace coffee, "all that remains to be seen is how, when, and which manufacturers and operators will be poised to reap the benefits," said Euromonitor.

By CNBC.com's Nyshka Chandran. Follow her on Twitter @NyshkaCNBC

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