When the coronavirus bore down, cannabis businesses in many states were granted the right to continue operating as “essential businesses” in the vein of hospitals, pharmacies and grocery stores. Many responded to the challenge with a variety of strategies to keep consumers safe. Here’s a sampling:
Postpone events and take them online: Among the first things that became clear in the COVID-19 outbreak was that 4/20 celebrations and revenue-generating events such as conferences, seminars and store grand openings had to be canceled. Many organizers moved events online, signaling what the post-coronavirus future might look like.
Increased sanitation: Many marijuana cultivation and extraction facilities already took sanitation seriously, with employees wearing gloves, masks and shoe coverings and taking other precautions to keep facilities clean. For them, not many changes were required.
But the pandemic mandated that retailers adopt many of the same sanitary practices that their grow and product-manufacturing colleagues already practiced.
Many marijuana businesses purchased sanitizer, antiseptic wipes, plastic gloves and other sanitation supplies in bulk. They also wiped down cash registers more frequently—in some cases, after every transaction. Others provided hand sanitizers for customer use throughout their stores.
Instead of having customers hand identification to its staff, Massachusetts-based Mayflower Medicinals asked consumers to place the ID cards on a clipboard so employees wouldn’t have to touch them.
Theory Wellness, which has three locations in Massachusetts, introduced a gloved doorman to open doors for customers, while budtenders were no longer allowed to offer customers a sample whiff of product.
“We’re trying to minimize the touch points between patients and customers and employees,” said Thomas Winstanley, director of marketing at Theory Wellness.
Increased physical distancing: To abide by physical-distancing recommendations, many cannabis retailers capped the number of customers who could be inside their stores at any one time, a practice that was later adopted by grocery stores and other mainstream retail outlets deemed “essential businesses” allowed to stay open.
Sira Naturals in Somerville, Massachusetts, capped the number of customers on its sales floor at 15, while the Chai Cannabis Co., which has retail outlets in Castroville and Santa Cruz, California, limited its sales activities to three budtenders and three customers at a time.
Many stores also added tape on the floor to indicate where customers should stand to maintain a 6-foot distance from others. They also eliminated the use of waiting rooms and asked customers to wait their turns outside. Still other companies asked employees to check their temperatures before shifts.
Curbside pickup: Marijuana businesses in some states, with the blessing of regulators, took online ordering a step further by offering curbside pickup so customers wouldn’t have to enter stores. Consumers would order online and then pick up purchases in a store parking lot or another designated area.
Procedures such as ID checks were strictly followed, as were safety measures including physical distancing and the use of gloves for employees working on curbside pickups.
Drive-thru services: A small but notable number of stores offered drive-thru options. Edgewater, Maryland-based Mana Supply Co. spent about $100,000 converting a former bank drive-thru into a secure drive-thru for its dispensary.
In the case of Mana Supply, customers order ahead of time. When they arrive at the dispensary, consumers press a button on a call box that enables them to show identification cards via video. After they’re cleared, customers drive into the bay, a high-speed garage door closes behind them and they push a button on a second call box to have their IDs checked again. The employee then puts the prefilled order into a drawer and slides it out.
Online ordering: To make delivery orders and curbside pickups easier to transact, many stores began offering—and often requiring—orders to be placed online. For example, Aaron Varney, director of Seattle-area cannabis retailer Dockside Cannabis, said his company encouraged customers to purchase products online by offering users a 10% discount. Preordering online streamlines the process so customers spend less time in the store, Varney said.
Communicating with consumers and the public: During the pandemic, communicating with customers has been critical for safety and business reasons. Measures include:
- Posting signs outside and inside stores reminding people to keep physical distance. These efforts show consumers and regulators that you take safety seriously.
- Using social media to let customers know about policy changes, such as closing sales floors and switching to curbside and delivery options. Keeping customers informed saves them wasted trips to your location.
Businesses found other creative ways to communicate important information to customers, such as text messages to notify them when pickup orders were ready, which enabled customers to wait in their cars rather than spending time in the store. When texts failed, a few creative companies secured FM transmitters to reach consumers through their car radios.
Communicating with employees: In times of crisis, communicating with employees about important changes in operations and procedures is critical. In fact, executives recommend “overcommunication.”
Charlie Bachtel, CEO at Chicago-based Cresco Labs, believes in that approach. In mid-March, Bachtel sent companywide emails with updates every day. The next week, he sent emails Monday and Friday; on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, companywide emails were sent by other senior executives. Lower-level managers also communicated frequently with employees.
Technology/Drones: Green Cross CBD in Austin, Texas, started a drone delivery service to adhere to physical-distancing measures that help slow the spread of the coronavirus. John Elmore, the company’s owner, told Austin TV station KTBC that he was sterilizing products and offering curbside pickup before he started drone deliveries.
“I was able to come up with a contraption where I could drop it in your front yard and unlatch and just take off,” Elmore said. “The drone can hold up to 2 pounds safely,” he added. “I don’t like to exceed that. … That’s quite a bit of CBD.”
New ways to roll: As the ultimate sharable consumption medium, pre-rolls seemed destined to take a sales hit during the pandemic. Pre-rolls generally have come in 1-gram sizes. But even before the coronavirus pandemic, pre-roll manufacturers increasingly were producing half-gram and even quarter-gram pre-rolls that could be consumed individually and not shared. During the pandemic, pre-roll makers accelerated the pivot to smaller pre-rolls.
Arizona-based Huxton, for example, makes only half-gram pre-rolls, which it sells in tins of seven.
“The convenience was initially intended as the ideal grab-and-go product,” Huxton co-founder Chelsea Johnson said. “In today’s climate, it’s been a great substitute for the traditional puff, puff, pass.”
Old Pal, a California cannabis brand that sells pouches of pre-ground flower complete with hemp rolling papers and crutches, also had to change its tone. While Old Pal hasn’t jettisoned its “Cannabis is Communal” mantra, its new messaging on Instagram touts “coming together by staying apart” and “Puff, puff, don’t pass.”
– Additional reporting by Laura Drotleff, Margaret Jackson and Bart Schaneman