Digital solutions might be what keeps cannabis retail alive during pandemic

Apr 15 2020, 3:23 pm

Walking up to Canvas Cannabis in east Toronto, customers are confronted by the now-typical store bouncer at the door, checking IDs and making sure those in the queue are standing firmly six feet apart. When finally arriving at the front, instead of being rushed into the store, shoppers are confronted by a formidable plexiglass barrier.

Holding up a driver’s licence and giving the name attached to an online order, an attendant behind the transparent shield delivers the product in a brown paper bag with a gloved hand.

From sneeze guards to repeated cleanings, cannabis retailers have been doing whatever it takes to show consumers and provincial governments that they can keep customers safe during the pandemic, but the real solution might be in technologies that take the physical aspects out of the shopping experience.

Marked physical distancing line up outside cannabis store. (Daily Hive)

For the locations in Canada where cannabis retail was deemed essential, storefronts operate like most retailers during the pandemic. Physically distanced lines are allowed outside the store, and inside customer numbers are restricted. Increased hand-washing by employees is said to be a regular event.

At time of writing, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and Ontario are the only provinces and territories to shut down in-person cannabis retail. Ontario classified cannabis retail and production as essential in late-March, only to rescind that classification in the first week of April.

One retailer told Grow they weren’t given any advanced notice by the province.

“We looked at the essential list. That was probably the first thing that I did just to make sure and then realized we were not there,” said Rich Ledesma, director at cannabis retailer Shiny Bud. “That’s when the questions started going.”

After conferring with a lawyer, and reaching out to contacts at provincial cannabis wholesaler OCS and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), Shiny Buds closed its location.

“Following advice from Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health,” read an update on the province’s list of essential services, “on April 3, 2020, Ontario updated the list of essential businesses that can remain open.”

The rollercoaster ride for cannabis seems to have not stopped since legalization took effect in 2018, as the industry has faced product shortages, complicated advertising restrictions, revenue problems, and a global health crisis, all the while competing against legacy dealers for a larger place in the bongs of the country.

Realizing that unregulated — and typically cheaper — cannabis would benefit from the shutdown, Ontario revised laws that prevented curbside pick up and delivery for retailers. In less than two weeks, stores had been told to remain open, told to close, and then found themselves scrambling to setup delivery and online payment portals.

With a curbside pick-up option, customers are still often required to stand in line to collect orders at the front of the store. While physical distancing is being enforced across the country, a typical sidewalk will not accommodate the recommended two metres of distance.

While Canadians are known for loving a good queue, an American company has digitized the process, something that might prove attractive to shoppers and businesses alike.

“We became an overnight sensation over the last 10 years,” Kevin Grauman, Qless president and CEO told Grow over the phone.

“There are still facilities and environments where people need to be present [and] physically interact with one another. We just want to make that experience much more manageable.”

The solution for the company was to digitize the process of standing in line, something that remains a mostly human affair. And when cannabis was legalized on the state level in Qless Vice President of Sales Charlie Meyer’s hometown of Denver, the company paired with stores struggling to manage crowds.

When a user takes their place in the electronic queue, they receive a text message telling them their place in line. As the line moves forward, the customer is updated on their place, freeing them up to leave the immediate area, but without being surprised when they suddenly need to appear in person.

“We kinda like to say it works with a dumb phone and works in a smartphone,” Meyer added. “You’re going to get a message on your phone that says, ‘Hey, you’re currently 10th in line. Your forecasted wait is 15 to 20 minutes.'”

The company has made its first move into Canada through an agreement with Shiny Bud in Toronto, but is hoping that the technology, and the need for distance, will carry it across the country.”

Peter SmithPeter Smith

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