Cannabis retail executives share strategies for retaining budtenders

, Cannabis retail executives share strategies for retaining budtenders

It can be difficult for marijuana retailers to keep their top-performing budtenders, but the payoff for investing in retention is well worth it.

“When you have really engaged, high-performing budtenders who are passionate about what you do and who are passionate about working for your company, they can become brand evangelists,” said Christine Hodgdon, director of human resources at Native Roots, a vertically integrated Colorado cannabis retail chain.

Budtender retention is a challenge for many dispensaries.

According to Seattle-based business intelligence platform Headset, data collected in Colorado and Washington over a 12-month period showed the average retailer in those states reported 30% budtender turnover. Of that 30%, it also showed that 58% of budtenders in both states quit or were terminated in less than two months, and 40% didn’t even last a month.

“All of your customer-facing employees are the face of your company,” said Lilach Mazor Power, the co-founder and managing director of Giving Tree Dispensary in Phoenix. “If they’re happy and they’re staying, that means they’re the best brand ambassadors you can have.”

To retain budtenders, you can offer competitive pay, health care, ongoing education and performance incentives. But the key, sources said, is to keep them engaged and make them feel valued.

“You can have great products, shops that look nice, but it’s all in vain if your budtenders aren’t happy,” said Ryan Kunkel, the founder and CEO of Have a Heart, a multistate cannabis retailer based in Washington state. “Happiness isn’t something you can measure on the bottom line. A CPA can’t see it. But it’s everything.”

Marijuana Business Magazine asked Mazor Power, Hodgdon and Kunkel to share their companies’ strategies for retaining budtenders—and asked their budtenders why those retention strategies matter.



Giving Tree Dispensary

Headquarters Phoenix

Number of employees 39

Number of retail stores One retail store and 26 wholesale locations for brands

Markets Medical


Hire the right people. Cannabis knowledge and dispensary experience aren’t as important as hiring for a good fit with a positive attitude and a track record of delivering excellent customer service, according to Mazor Power. Giving Tree’s weeklong training for budtenders covers cannabis 101, but someone can’t be trained to be the right fit.

“I want someone who gets it, who wants to be a part of our company’s mission and vision. If they don’t get it—if they don’t get us—it’s not going to work,” Mazor Power said.

Offer health care and supplemental benefits. Giving Tree provides employees health insurance, a 3% matching 401(k) contribution and profit sharing. At the end of the year, the company’s retirement plan managers deposit a percentage of Giving Tree’s annual profits into employees’ retirement accounts based on their hours worked and employment history. “Working in a startup environment is not easy; they’ve earned it,” Mazor Power said.

Be transparent. “Have an open-door policy,” Mazor Power advised. “It sounds like a slogan, but when you put it in practice for real, it’s one of the best things you can do.”

Mazor Power communicates with employees during office hours and in monthly meetings and quarterly newsletters. She shares sales and patient numbers, information about products and insight on what the next 90 days might bring. She also gives employees an opportunity to share feedback and tell her what can be done better. “It’s important they know we’re listening and communicating,” she said.

Have fun. Host employee happy hours, staff meals and team-building activities, and participate in corporate social giving campaigns, Mazor Power said. Sales contests are also an effective way to engage employees, added Mazor Power, who created a friendly sales competition for budtenders to win a trip to Hawaii.

If you create a fun, positive environment, you’re more likely to retain happy employees, Power noted. “We sell marijuana,” she said. “We can’t take ourselves too seriously.”


Why It Matters to Budtenders

Javier Torres, a budtender at Giving Tree, said he feels involved in what’s happening with the business, and his managers have done a good job making him feel engaged. Whether it’s asking for his input on sales, products or how to better serve patients, Torres said, he and his coworkers’ opinions are valued.

“There’s an emphasis on positive communication, and that’s important,” he said.

Torres also values the transparency that Mazor Power has cultivated. From sales figures to changes in operations or information about what’s happening with the cultivation or extraction teams, the owners and managers share insight with employees so they know what’s happening throughout the business. “There’s no hiding information from each other,” he said.

Torres also appreciates that Giving Tree offers full medical, dental and vision coverage, and he’s happy with the company’s profit-sharing contribution into his retirement account. “Profit sharing is something most people would love to have,” he said. “It has given me a head start to planning for the future.”

The sales incentives that Mazor Power mentioned leave an impression, too. “I’ve never worked for a company that wanted to buy dinner for me and a spouse or a family member,” he said. “Those incentives come from a place of positive intent.”

Finally, Torres emphasized the importance of educating employees. Giving Tree’s preshift meetings cover information on new products or changes in operations, and meetings with Mazor Power or the company’s medical director do deeper dives into new research or ways to serve medical patients.

“They make sure the education is there for everybody,” Torres said. “That’s the most important thing. Everyone gets to learn.”



Native Roots

Headquarters Denver

Number of employees 600

Number of retail stores 20

Markets Medical and Recreational


Ask the right questions. A good first step toward retaining budtenders is hiring the right talent. To that end, Native Roots trains its managers to ask interview questions that illuminate behaviors, and to distinguish descriptive, detailed answers from theoretical answers.

A theoretical answer to a question would be: “I build trust within teams.” An answer that gives more insight to behaviors—a preferable approach—would explain how the candidate builds trust within teams and include an example of how the candidate has done that in other roles. “Some things aren’t uncovered in the interview process that should be, and there are characteristics you can look for before they manifest on the job,” Hodgdon said.

Check in. In addition to a three-day training and onboarding process for all new employees, Native Roots’ managers schedule 30-, 60- and 90-day check-ins for all employees. The check-ins are used to find out what’s working and what’s not, and to direct employees to additional training and resources.

“Sometimes we don’t press pause enough to ask about everything going on in someone else’s world,” Hodgdon said. “When we let people know they have a voice and can share feedback, it has an awesome impact.”

Provide training and continued education. Make onboarding and continued education fun and easy to access, and provide training on skills that can be applied to other industries or to an employee’s personal growth, said Adam Cole, a learning and development specialist at Native Roots.

The company uses Spoke, an online learning management system, to host cannabis content and education materials and resources for employees. Some courses are mandatory and others are designed to share additional information about cannabis and the industry, Cole said.

He is also designing a full-day classroom course on emotional intelligence for Native Roots employees. That’s a skill that would benefit employees in their careers in or outside the industry, he said. The skills he hopes to share would help employees navigate emotional conversations—a negative performance review, for example—and respond rationally and productively, as opposed to defensively or in anger, he said.

“Education is one of the most powerful tools we have in retention,” Cole said.


Why It Matters to Budtenders

Cameron McWilliams didn’t have budtending experience when he was hired more than two years ago at a Native Roots dispensary in Littleton, a suburb of Denver. But, he said, his onboarding, training and managers’ support made for a smooth transition to his new job.

The onboarding program “was absolutely phenomenal,” he said. McWilliams’ training included beginner-level courses and more advanced training on terpenes and compliance. He said he still uses what he was taught at training during his day-to-day job.

“They equipped us with talking points to work with a variety of customers and patients so we don’t just sound like a bunch of stoners trying to sell weed,” he said.

McWilliams said employees are always encouraged to approach managers with questions about operations, compliance or new processes, which has created an open, collaborative environment.

“I love the fact that we’re supported,” he said. “I don’t hesitate to talk to my managers or regional manager. Our corporate staff comes in several times a year, too, and they’re not intimidating to talk to. That’s a big thing; sometimes that’s intimidating, but it’s not in this company. I don’t feel any intimidation here.”

Employees’ paid time off and medical, dental and vision benefits are a huge plus, too, he said. Health care “isn’t cheap ever, but with our full health coverage, I can go to the doctor or a dentist and not worry about emptying my bank account. That’s a huge benefit.”

Paid time off also offers peace of mind, he said. Employees are encouraged to take time off if they need it, and they don’t have to worry about it hurting their income, McWilliams said.



Have a Heart

Headquarters Seattle

Number of employees More than 400

Number of retail stores 11 across six states

Markets Medical and Recreational


Include budtenders in your marketing. “We make our budtenders the stars of our show,” Kunkel said. Budtenders are featured in Have a Heart’s photo shoots, and those photos are used in social media posts, print advertising in High Times and Dope magazines, on billboards and in in-store posters. “It gives them pride and a sense of ownership in what we do. It’s empowering, and it shows them they’re not just a cog in a machine.”

Featuring budtenders in your online marketing often leads to them sharing your content. “If you have them (sharing that) organically, if they’re invested, you’re winning,” Kunkel said.

Consider collective bargaining. Have a Heart signed a collective bargaining agreement last year with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 to provide its Washington employees and their family members access to union medical, dental, vision and short-term disability insurance. The agreement also emphasizes equal pay and fair treatment for employees, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or cultural background, and it offers the opportunity for annual pay increases.

Kunkel said it’ll take time to gauge how collective bargaining affects retention, but in the week after Have a Heart announced its union contract, he said he received more employment applications than he did in any full calendar month in the past eight years.

“I want (employees) to live their lives,” Kunkel said. “I don’t want work to be their lives. They should know they’ll be taken care of with health care and time off.”

Hire the right managers. Managers are key to retaining budtenders. They should have excellent communication skills and express a genuine interest in their employees’ lives, Kunkel said. They should make stores “as much of a democracy as they can,” Kunkel said, and provide ways for employees to be heard.

Managers should avoid micromanaging employees, Kunkel said. “Managers should never have to try to control people,” he said. “They’re there to allow people to do better at their jobs.”

They should also be able to communicate your brand’s mission and emphasize culture. “Data shows that people in their 20s are looking for more than just a paycheck,” Kunkel said. “You have to give them a mission. They have to believe in what they’re doing.”


Why It Matters to Budtenders

Have a Heart’s union contract has been “life changing” for employees, said budtender Olivia Hager, who has worked at one of the company’s retail shops for more than three years. “We have the best pay rate that I’ve heard,” she said. The health-care benefits and annual raises that are guaranteed in the labor contract make it easier to have a work-life balance, she noted.

“It isn’t easy to work and have a good quality of life, but Have a Heart makes it doable,” she said.

She noted the education courses on Moodle, an online learning management system, are a successful retention measure, too. “I’ve learned a lot from the Moodle courses,” Hager said. Managers keep Moodle updated with courses on new state laws and regulations, compliance, new products and new vendors.

“There’s a lot of good information and a quiz at the end to test your knowledge,” Hager said. “If something didn’t click 100%, you get a better sense of what you might have missed.”

Have a Heart also takes employees on farm tours to see where flower is grown and hosts training days with product vendors. “That helps us get clarification if we have questions about products,” she said. “That way, we’re not sharing any misinformation.”

Pay, benefits and training are important, Hager said, but it’s Have a Heart’s culture that keeps her there. The company partners with local charities to perform volunteer projects, and Have a Heart hosts quarterly parties for employees.

Have a Heart’s shops have positive environments, she said, and managers do their best to make their teams feel like families. “As far as the culture, I have no reason to want to go anywhere else,” Hager said. “Our upper management likes to do things that are beneficial for everybody, and there’s so much room for growth going forward. It isn’t a job; it’s absolutely a career.”