So far, Canada’s cannabis retail marketing – in stores and online – has been more about what can’t be done. Strict Cannabis Act regulations about product packaging and labels; prohibitions about advertising through endorsement or testimonials, or portraying cannabis use in a glamorous lifestyle way; and other restrictions make competitive marketing a challenge.
That said, players in the cannabis industry must work creatively within restrictions to differentiate themselves and build customer loyalty, getting the all-important repeat business. As more retail stores open across the country, it’s clear that they will play an increasingly important role in legal cannabis sales.
After all, the appeal of cannabis is to the senses. And the more senses brought into play – sight, touch, smell – the better the chances of appealing to consumers. In their stores, some retailers, for example, will use clear containers with magnifying glasses and slots so potential buyers can see and smell dried flowers, helping to make a purchasing decision.
Of course, this kind of connection is far better made in a brick-and-mortar outlet, as opposed to online. Just as people are more likely to hop in the car and buy alcohol in a store than order it online, so many consumers want to do the same with their cannabis.
So how can retailers provide a better an in-store customer experience within the strict regulatory environment?
Start with a Better Store Design
First, they have to get past the stigma of the old “head shops” operating in the grey and black markets, which were associated with a certain type of “psychedelic” out-there store design. To distance themselves from this past, and to appeal to a wider spectrum of consumers, new, legal cannabis retailers need store designs that are clean, modern and professional – inviting spaces where consumers are comfortable browsing, shopping and learning.
For example, Gary Symons, Director of Communications for Delta 9 Cannabis, which has a storefront in Winnipeg, says, “I think people have a picture of what a cannabis store is like: Bob Marley posters on the wall, the scent of patchouli in the air. We’re not like that. Our store is kind of like entering an Apple store. It’s very sleek and clean and staff wear Delta 9 colours. There’s art on the wall.”
Or in its four Calgary stores, cannabis retailer Four20 Premium Market has created an inviting design –“large, bright, open concept stores feature all-natural elements such as rich hardwood floors, exposed brick walls, and polished stone counters, which offer a warm and inviting feeling.”
Says vice-president of operations Ryan Kaye: “We stayed away from the traditional ‘green’ stereotypes. We tried to focus on what would really engage a broad demographic. . . Our customers are responding with enthusiasm and excitement when they enter any one of our stores.”
Think Outside the Celebrity Endorsement
While testimonials and celebrity endorsements aren’t allowed, cannabis retailers can still borrow imagery from related industries, such as music, entertainment, art and tourism, to promote or associate with products.
Customers are also attracted to locally made products. So this could entail, for example, including information about a local micro-grower in store materials, or a display of glass sculptures from a local glass blower providing cannabis accessories for the store.
Draw on Your People Power
Your store is allowed to provide information about cannabis products, which could involve digital displays in kiosks or mounted tablets, or printed posters. You can also draw on one of your most important assets, your sales people. Not only must they be well versed in pertinent cannabis regulations, they also should be well versed about cannabis generally and your store selection, to provide customers any needed information and help them make their purchase decisions.
Having this kind of information readily available for shoppers is particularly important since recent research shows that consumers aren’t yet aware of the differences between cannabis brands, because of the restrictions on their promotion.
“When we want to hire new staff members, we look at people who are enthusiastic and have a willingness to learn,” says Kaye of Four20 Premium Market. “Research is expanding and being revised all the time, so it’s much easier to work with someone who has a passion for learning, versus someone who may carry a lot of misinformation.”
But Make It Easy to Buy
Yes, providing answers to people with questions is important. But there are a lot of consumers – and this number will grow – who know what they want and are looking to get in and out of the store quickly. So cannabis retailers who expedite purchases will have the advantage over competitors with more clumsy checkout procedures.
While expedited checkouts could involve store design and adding more cashiers, stores can also become nimbler, arming their sales staff with mobile point-of-sales systems that allow them to ring up purchases wherever they are in the store, expediting the process.
The same POS systems can also provide valuable customer data to store managers, telling them, for example, what products are popular and must be kept in stock, or which products appeal to which demographics.
At the end of the day, if you can help your customers make their purchasing decisions, in a fast and painless payment procedure, made in a welcoming store environment, then your cannabis business is bound to flourish.