Lessons From Opening Day in Illinois

As marijuana legalization spreads across the United States, retailers experience a range of logistical issues on their first day of sales—particularly in markets with newly legal cannabis sales for recreational use.

That trend was on full display on New Year’s Day in Illinois, which had a booming start to its adult-use market with lines that stretched hundreds of people long around city blocks.

Vendors did everything they could to make as many customers as happy as possible. But inevitably, issues arise—especially in the first hectic days, when retailers are often swamped with excited customers eager to learn about newly legal products.

Marijuana Business Magazine picked the brains of executives from five Illinois cannabis retailers to get tips on how shop owners in new markets can make their opening days as hiccup-free as possible.

 


 

Name Jason Erkes

Position Chief communications officer

Company Cresco Labs, doing business as Sunnyside

Locations Buffalo Grove, Champaign, Chicago, Elmwood Park and Rockford

 

What was your biggest win on opening day?

I think our biggest win was keeping customers who were waiting up to six hours excited about making their first legal cannabis purchase. There aren’t many things that people would wait that long for. They wanted to be part of history, so we fed them, we entertained them and helped the time pass by until they made it in the door.

 

What could have gone better?

Having more state-approved staff on hand would have had an impact on how quickly we could fill orders—and also to provide some relief for our core staff the first week. We had minimal staff that were certified to work in the dispensaries, so that didn’t really afford them a break, and we were open 12-15 hours some days. We should have begun the state-certification process earlier for new employees. If we would have applied for those people to be badged earlier, we would have had more staff. We hired them, and we had submitted the paperwork, but there wasn’t enough time for them to get cleared to work by Jan. 1.

 

What advice would you give other retailers to help opening day go as smoothly as possible?

You have to plan for every possible contingency—from crowds to weather to technology to compliance and inventory—to make sure you’re prepared. We had a war room set up a month out and had daily meetings with every single department to update on the status, to make sure everything was being thought of and checked off.

 

What should retailers be wary of as potential problems on opening day?

The two big buckets are crowds and technology. Those are the two things that can really ultimately impact how your Day One operations go. If your tech goes down, you’re basically out of business, and all the other planning you’ve done is meaningless. Making sure you’ve tested and done dry runs is critical—and having a support team standing by is an absolute must.

 

Do you have any tips on what types of products to stock—or how much—to avoid shortages?

Stocking as much flower as you can get your hands on is critical, because it’s the most traditional form that consumers are familiar with. So flower is what new consumers are going to know to order, and vapes and edibles are right behind that. Fill your vault to the brim.

 


 

Name Abigail Watkins

Position Marketing director

Company Dispensary33

Location Chicago

 

What was your biggest win on opening day?

Having a customer base who—even though it was New Year’s Day in Chicago and freezing—were all so happy to be a part of it. People were understanding about standing in line for hours and really appreciated any time we handed out coffee or hot cocoa. I counted that line—it was 500 people long—and people were still choosing to get at the end, even though they knew there was a decent chance they were never getting in on opening day.

 

What could have gone better?

We had to make a choice: Did we want to figure out a strategy to mitigate the lines, or did we want that community feeling of having the lines? For any business, they have to decide ahead of time what they want to do and how they want to put it into action. We decided at 9 a.m. that we were going to go from having people in line to having a text-based system, like restaurants, so people wouldn’t have to keep standing there.

The problem was that by 9 a.m., we already had 500 people lined up. So, by getting to that process so late, it slowed everything down logistically in terms of moving people through the shop. And that line is going to start forming hours before you open. The first person in line at our shop got there at 10 p.m. the night before, so whatever your line-mitigation strategy is, it better go into effect in the early hours of the morning or even the night before.

 

What advice would you give other retailers to help opening day go as smoothly as possible?

Decide what you’re going to do and message it out as vigorously and as early as possible, because at the end of the day, a certain percentage of people are going to be unhappy, and they’re going to express themselves (online). But the best thing you can do is clearly message out whatever decisions you’ve made.

 

What should retailers be wary of as potential problems on opening day?

Knowing ahead of time how many customers you can handle per hour. Determine beforehand at what point you are going to cut off the line, so you don’t have people waiting, hoping to get in, and suddenly it’s 9 p.m. and you’re one hour away from being legally required to close, with hundreds of people still in line. You’re going to have to tell people, “I’m sorry you’ve been here four hours, but we simply cannot legally serve you.” Make a decision that’s realistic, stick to it, and make sure you communicate clearly.

 

Do you have any tips on what types of products to stock—or how much—to avoid shortages?

You’re talking Illinois here. We stock everything anyone will sell us. Everyone loves more flower than we’re going to be able to buy from cultivators for 18 months at a minimum, because (the market is) so constrained. The reality is that when people come in and we don’t have flower, they’re predominantly going to go with vape cartridges or edibles. Flower is available for recreational customers—but in limited quantities until supply starts to meet demand. The reality is, a good number of recreational customers don’t have a hard time finding flower on the black market but have a hard time finding reliable and quality cartridges, edibles and concentrates.

 


 

Name Jeremy Unruh

Position Director of public and regulatory affairs

Company PharmaCann

Locations Arlington Heights, North Aurora, Ottawa and Romeoville

 

What was your biggest win on opening day?

Our biggest win was we had no unanticipated problems.

 

What could have gone better?

There were certainly people who were not as happy with the rollout as we would have liked, people who had to stand outside for a long time, or people who had preordered something and then, when they got to the front of the line, it wasn’t available. That menu management probably could have been done a little bit better, but by and large, there were a lot of happy people on Jan. 1. Communicating among the various operators could have been done better, because we had and are having wholesale problems, but they were problems that were anticipated.

 

What advice would you give other retailers to help opening day go as smoothly as possible?

Be a good neighbor. Spend time with your neighbors, spend time with your host communities—first responders and the city-services people—to make sure that you set expectations and anticipate problems and come up with a plan for addressing those problems as early as you possibly can. And continue to work with your neighbors up to Day One—and, probably more importantly, after Day One.

 

What should retailers be wary of as potential problems on opening day?

Staffing. Particularly in Illinois, that was difficult, because our employees have to be fingerprint-checked by the state, and the state requires several weeks to do that. So there’s a really big lag time—not just to hire people but also to get them comfortable with your point-of-sale system and with the customer-flow issues you’re going to experience. Customer flow is another one. It’s queuing, it’s parking, it’s traffic flow. Menu-management is important, so you can replace items as they sell out. Cross-functioning support and creating emergency plans are really important.

 

Do you have any tips on what types of products to stock—or how much—to avoid shortages?

As much as possible. Be prepared to run out, and be prepared to manage the expectation that there will be product shortages. Make sure everybody knows that. It’s all about dry flower here in Illinois. When people purchase their first cannabis product, they want to get the old school, the original. For somebody who hasn’t been that exposed to cannabis for two decades, the notion of a vape pen is crazy. Edibles are very attractive, too, but (most popular are) dried flower and premium eighths.

 


 

Name Kris Krane

Position President

Company 4Front Ventures, doing business as Mission

Location Chicago

 

What was your biggest win on opening day?

Not running out of flower.

 

What could have gone better?

Throughput. We put systems in place that we thought were going to help with throughput, but we’d never lived that kind of crushing volume before. Some of the things we thought were going to help actually wound up hurting and slowing the process down—online orders in particular, little things that you don’t realize how big of an impact they have until you see that kind of volume. Over the next week and a half, we tinkered with the way we do ordering; we stopped online orders entirely, and it made a big difference. (Jan. 24) was our biggest day ever, and we saw 75 people more than we saw on opening day—and opening day we were open for an additional five hours. If we knew then what we know now, we probably would have done another 300-400 sales on opening day. But if we did that, we might have run out of flower.

 

What advice would you give other retailers to help opening day go as smoothly as possible?

Staff up. Order lunch ahead of time. And make sure the menus are perfect so there’s no confusion for your customers. The more questions you have to answer, the longer it takes to get people through, and when you have a line of several hundred people outside in the cold, the less questions the better. Have a food truck outside for your customers. If you have an opportunity to spend some time in a high-volume, adult-use shop, do it.

 

What should retailers be wary of as potential problems on opening day?

Online ordering was a big issue. There was an expectation that was going to help speed things along, but in actuality, it backed us up a lot. Because what happens with online ordering is, someone places that order, but you don’t know when they’re going to show up. They may be there in half an hour, or it may be four hours. That creates a few issues: One, by and large, you’re not actually taking that order out of inventory until they show up and pay for it, so they may order it and then show up four hours later, and when you’ve got such heavy volume and such a small (inventory), there’s a decent chance that by the time they get there, something they ordered is out of stock. Then you have to make time to find a replacement product. Online ordering on the whole in most instances is a really good thing—and it does help—but when you’re facing that kind of massive volume, it hurts more than helps.

 

Do you have any tips on what types of products to stock—or how much—to avoid shortages?

As much as you can. The problem with the first day—and this has been the case in pretty much every adult-use market—is there’s not enough inventory to meet demand. My advice would be to buy up every bit of product you can find in the wholesale market in the months leading up to the rec launch, because you’ll sell all of it.

 


  

Name Brendan Blume

Position Vice president of store development

Company Green Thumb Industries, doing business as Rise

Locations Canton, Joliet, Mundelein and Quincy

 

What was your biggest win on opening day?

For us, the biggest win was everything went smoothly. There were no major hiccups. The state system didn’t go down. And the state served tons of customers—that’s huge. It was one of the most successful rollouts ever, so a huge win for us at GTI and the industry as a whole.

 

What could have gone better?

We probably could have planned better for having as many people as we did waiting outside at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but it was a great scene. We probably could have done a better job making sure the celebration was accommodating for that many people. When we do our next one in our next state, that’s something I’d like to plan for.

 

What advice would you give other retailers to help opening day go as smoothly as possible?

I’d say the thing that made us really successful is we partnered with the local communities, the police departments, the towns, the people at city hall that we’d been talking to for months about what our plan was and how we were going to handle every scenario. That was what gave everyone confidence that we were going to do this right and be successful. At the end of the day, it’s just being a good neighbor and letting everyone around you know.

 

What should retailers be wary of as potential problems on opening day?

Prepping for the volume of people. Making sure you’ve thought of every little scenario to keep people happy. No one’s in a bad mood, but keeping the peace, keeping people happy and keeping the lines going.

 

Do you have any tips on what types of products to stock—or how much—to avoid shortages?

We didn’t experience (any shortages) in the first days, but we try to keep as much of a diverse menu as possible while still taking care of the medical patients. That’d be my advice: Keep a diverse menu to keep people happy.

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