The opening of a new cannabis store is an exciting time for a community, but it can also be a time of apprehension and uncertainty. Retailers have a huge opportunity in this brand new industry, but they also have the burden of demystifying and destigmatizing cannabis, and finding healthy and prosperous ways to engage and connect with their communities. There are several approaches that stores can take to do this: educating their staff, customers, and the general public, hosting events, business networking, and community outreach.
Education is a critical component of the cannabis industry. Staff must be knowledgeable and able to provide accurate and useful information to customers, consumers must learn how to navigate the industry to meet their particular needs, and the community as a whole needs to be educated about cannabis in order to dispel false stereotypes and misconceptions.
Education will be a primary focus for Meta Cannabis Supply Co., the recreational branch of National Access Cannabis (NAC). Matt Ryan, VP of Marketing for NAC, says the company’s goal is to open 50 to 70 locations across the country in 2018. In addition to training staff, Meta plans to offer plenty of educational opportunities to customers and anyone else in the community who is interested, through in-store events as well as their website and newsletter.
“There’s certainly a stigma around cannabis that we want to erase as soon as possible,” Ryan says. “We plan on doing events that are Cannabis 101 and teaching people about the basics. We have a lot to communicate to the public and to our community, and if we don’t do it, we’re not really doing our job. A few of those things are about harm reduction, safe use, and not getting behind the wheel after using cannabis.”
Health Canada set forth restrictions on cannabis advertising and promotion under the Cannabis Act (Bill C-45), so cannabis retailers don’t have a lot of options when it comes to external events. The Act forbids any mass advertising or promotion of cannabis products as well as corporate sponsorships of events and other activities.
Therefore, retailers will have to host their events in-store. This allows them to control the environment and ensure that all attendees are properly age verified. It also gives the store promotional freedom.
Meta stores plans to offer events and programming at a higher level for people who want to continue building their knowledge and remain up-to-date with industry changes, developments, and innovations. Ryan says this will occur through a mix of in-store events as well as through Meta’s digital platform, which is an age-gated website, newsletters, and other online content.
“We want to offer programming in our stores and online that goes beyond the basics,” he explains. “When we are marketing to the masses who are of legal age, it becomes very important to distinguish different types of activities and programming, and communicate those to the right people. A millennial is not going to want the same sort of education and information that a senior’s going to want.”
There are many opportunities for fruitful business relationships between cannabis retailers and other businesses and services in a community. Retailers have a great opportunity to reach out to them to demonstrate this, and to prove that a cannabis store is a healthy part of a business community. This can be accomplished through in-store business networking, which can involve inviting area businesses to see the space and talk about how they can work together. “We’re looking at ways to host meetings with the vicinity community for them to come in and ask those questions, and for us to present to them,” Ryan says. “They can come in and see that the environment is safe and responsible, and get a sense of what is being offered there.” You can also reach out to business networks and associations in your neighbourhood, attend meetings, or join local service clubs or Chambers of Commerce.
Some people may be nervous or apprehensive about a cannabis store opening in their community, possibly due to the negative image and stigma created by grey-market dispensaries and clinics prior to legalization. Legal cannabis retailers therefore have to take extra steps to ensure that they are not just tolerated, but welcomed and even celebrated in their communities.
The physical appearance and operation of stores will be the first step to alleviate these fears. “When people come into a Meta store, they’re going to see something that mimics more of a jewelry store meets a high-end bakery,” Ryan describes.
“The community isn’t just consumers,” Ryan says. “It’s the businesses in the area as well. Some of those businesses will be complementary to us and welcome us, and for those that want to work with us or have questions about our business, we want to be able to adhere to that.”
As we’re in the early days of legalization, being a licensed retailer can be fraught with worries about breaking regulations. It can be difficult; people may be interested in the possible medical benefits, but you can’t discuss this. Outreach efforts should be confined to lifestyle or educational events. Before embarking on any type of community outreach, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re covered. This means doing a lot of homework on what your municipality allows, or seeking guidance from a lawyer or consultant.