How marijuana companies woo budtenders to increase sales, promote brands

Did you miss the webinar “Women Leaders in Cannabis: Shattering the Grass Ceiling?” Head to MJBiz YouTube to watch it now!

Image of budtenders at Med Pharm in Oklahoma

Budtenders assist customers at the Med Pharm dispensary in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, in 2020. (Photo by Sean Capshaw)

(This story has been updated to reflect how many point-of-sale systems SparkPlug interacts with.)

Cold hard cash. Swag, like shirts and tote bags. Free non-infused gummies. Private parties and appreciation breakfasts.

While some marijuana companies take a more conservative approach, others are pulling out all the stops to encourage budtenders to sell more products and boost sales.

“We gotta love up the budtenders,” said Walter Boyd, director of sales for Redbird Bioscience, a vertically integrated cannabis company based in Stilwell, Oklahoma.

To do that, Redbird incentivizes sales with cash bonuses that are paid out through a San Francisco-based software platform called SparkPlug.

The software lets cannabis store managers create gamified sales contests and offer performance incentives that are paid by both the brands and the retailers.

The program tracks budtenders’ performances with scorecards and leaderboards, and they get cash when they hit a certain goal.

For example, the first budtender to sell 20 units of a Redbird vape cartridge might win a $100 prize.

SparkPlug integrates with more than 20 point-of-sale systems across dozens of retail verticals.

SparkPlug is free for retailers to run vendor-sponsored incentives and $99 per month to run internal incentives sponsored by the store.

Boyd said by using the software, his company has seen significant sell-through and reordering of processed products.

“For example, if we sold 2,000 vape carts to a store, depending on size of the store, it would typically take 30-45 days for a reorder,” he said. “SparkPlug has shortened that to 21 days to reorder. ”

‘Front lines’

Mainstream retail employees often receive perks and bonuses – gadgets and cash are only two possibilities – depending on how much they sell of certain products.

The same holds true in the cannabis industry – at least for some retailers and product manufacturers.

Depending on the cannabis market, sales reps carry different titles: budtenders, dispensary associates, in-store sales representatives.

No matter what they go by, there’s no denying that they’re the tip of the spear for cannabis sales and can have a huge impact on a marijuana brand’s success.

Most, if not all, budtenders are cannabis consumers themselves and speak directly from experiences they’ve had with each product when handling customers.

“The budtenders are our front lines,” said Narmin Jarrous, chief development officer for Exclusive Brands, a vertically integrated cannabis company based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“They deal with the customers. They deal with the complaints. They deal with everything the customer needs.”

Trust builders

Approaches cannabis business take when working with budtenders vary by market and by company.

Some cannabis brands might try to offer cash incentives based on the amount of product a sales associate moves, while other brands might take a more hands-off approach and let the product’s reputation speak for itself.

Differences in approach are important for building trust in the industry, especially in newer markets with a less-educated customer base who are relying on the dispensary associates to steer them correctly, according to Jenna Parker, vice president of operations for Maitri Holdings, which operates medical marijuana dispensaries in Pennsylvania.

“I want the patients to feel confident,” Parker said, so she avoids incentivizing the in-house salespeople as well as those selling Maitri products elsewhere.

“I would never want to put our patients in a situation where anything is artificially inflated,” she added. “I’d rather have our patients have faith that everything they’re purchasing is high quality.”

Tech solutions

There are other technology solutions besides SparkPlug to help cannabis brands work with budtenders.

As just two examples, Plus Products, based in San Francisco, uses Lucid Green and Leaf VIP’s technologies to help incentivize sales representatives to educate themselves about Plus’ edibles.

With Leaf VIP, a budtender is eligible to receive a bonus by watching short videos offered by brands or taking surveys through an app. Budtenders get paid through PayPal and Venmo once they complete the offers.

Tara Soltow, Plus Products’ vice president of marketing, said she expects sales reps to provide honest feedback to consumers. Learning about the products is a big part of that, on top of trying the cannabis firsthand.

“Having them speak to their own experience is truly powerful,” she added.

Plus budgets a portion of certain product runs to providing two-pack samples, which is more cost-effective than giving a store a whole tin of edibles or even an entire case.

As well as the usual swag – think shirts and tote bags – that most brands in the industry provide budtenders, Soltow’s team likes to drop off THC-free gummies to a retail location so the sales reps have something to snack on.

“From the gifting standpoint, it always feels good to be thought of,” she added.

Bud teachers

Then there’s the education part of it.

Sales representatives are directly responsible for teaching cannabis consumers about the different products and their effects.

Jarrous in Michigan will specifically educate sales representatives herself on each product if necessary and get them samples of Exclusive’s products to try.

“I wholeheartedly believe the budtenders should be trying the products so they know what they’ll be selling,” she said.

The budtenders who work for Exclusive are all educated in-house, but she also records educational videos about the company’s products to send to sales associates across the state.

She’s not a fan of the cash-incentive strategy and said it’s becoming less in fashion as the industry matures.

“I would never want my product being pushed on someone,” Jarrous said. “It seems so impersonal and an aspect of sales I don’t like. If a product’s good, it’s going to speak for itself.”

Bart Schaneman can be reached at