Fresh off the heels of MJBizCon Las Vegas – the largest cannabis industry conference in the world – a few of H+K’s cannabis practice members have returned to Canada inspired and excited as we continue to navigate this rapidly evolving industry.
Aside from the truly robust trade floor expo, MJBizCon is packed with sessions and panels hosted by industry thought leaders, with topics that range from using social media in a highly regulated space, how different strain names affect marketability, what cannabis brands can learn from big pharma and alcohol companies and more. One session brought together members of three cannabis dispensaries in the U.S., all of which have a common ingredient behind their commercial success: creating an exceptional customer experience in-store. Given that retailers here in Canada are very much in their infancy, the content from that conversation is worth exploring further.
While focusing on the customer experience is certainly nothing new, it is for cannabis. Just a few years ago, how many of us would have thought critically about store layout, different checkout lanes, employee training, express parking for pick-up, or interactive elements as being crucial to informing the quality of a customer’s journey…at a cannabis shop?
For anyone who’s ever set foot in Planet 13’s Las Vegas dispensary, this thought process is imminently clear. Best described as a cross between an Apple store and an amusement park, it’s purposely set up as a tourist destination and designed with a lengthy retail experience in mind. Experiential elements like orb shows, LED walkways and interactive lasers inspire moments on social, but also do a great job of keeping people in their space. For those looking to talk to a sales associate – or budtender – one is assigned upon digital registration and they’re equipped to answer anything as it relates to cannabis or their host of products.
It’s worth pointing out that Canadian cannabis retailers are up against far more restrictions compared to the U.S. states where recreational cannabis is legal and so the ability to lean on marcomms experts who can navigate this space is crucial. For example, in Canada, retail employees are prohibited from making any benefit, health or lifestyle claims (consume X to help with Y ailment, or Z activity). A retailer also can’t appeal to youth whatsoever, so the laser beams from Planet 13 wouldn’t pass in Canada. But, given these restrictions, it makes for an even greater case to explore what other elements can positively contribute to a customer’s experience in-store. Here are key aspects to consider:

  • Collaborate with design partners early in the process: how much space needs to be devoted to displays? What do those displays look like? Is there enough room for back stock?
  • Customer flow: retailers in the U.S. have found that new customers were spending far more time at the checkout counter than they anticipated (up to 20 minutes). To avoid bottleneck, some have adopted two lanes for checkout to accommodate customers with varying degrees of education.
  • Experiential elements: Planet 13 is perhaps the most over-the-top example because it’s catered to the most over-the-top market in America, but exploring what types of interactive, visual or social media worthy elements (that fit within legal guidelines) can be incorporated into a retail space is worth thinking about.
  • Understand the market you’re in: this goes for pretty much any industry, but understanding the nuance that comes with different markets is important. The regulations for cannabis vary both provincially and municipally and a retail format that works well in a big city won’t necessarily translate the same in a rural community.

The regulations for cannabis retailers in Canada will no doubt evolve over the coming years, but as retailers continue to expand either as new entities or into new markets, thinking about the retail space – and not just its products – as a brand itself, could help completely shift what the customers experience and if they’ll keep coming back.