“So, let me get this straight, you plan to open three retail locations on October 17th and you need to hire and train your store managers and retail staff in the next 6 weeks?
Between September 1st and October 17th, 2018, I had some version of that conversation pretty much every day, with 6 weeks becoming 5 weeks, 4 weeks, 3 weeks, 2 weeks…. and even 1 week. ONE WEEK to staff a retail store! It was crazy.
As the retail frenzy countdown clock continued, we were seeing a huge need to not only hire staff but also to train people. Selling cannabis as a retail cannabis consultant aka budtender, isn’t quite like working in a liquor store. In a liquor store, the customer comes in, they pickup their beverage of choice, the clerk rings in your purchase and you’re done. Occasionally, you may ask for a recommendation on a nice Pinot Noir – but that’s about it. With cannabis, it’s a different story. Some customers will have had little to no experience with the product, they can’t actually see the product and even if they could the labels are all the same per regulation. Retail staff also can’t really say too much about how the product will impact the customer, again, due to regulations. It’s a tricky role, requiring a person to be able to adequately educate a largely unfamiliar customer base and do so while staying compliant. The retail cannabis consultant is the first point of contact between a brand and customer. Those new to cannabis wouldn’t know the difference between brands like San Rafael ’71, Soleil or DOJA or strains like Strawberry Cough, Laughing Budda or Granddaddy Purple. With a product that was formerly illegal, there is a lot of learning that needs to take place and the retail cannabis consultant is at the epicentre of the customer brand experience.
Cannabis At Work partnered with Kwantlen Polytechnic University to provide this crucial layer of knowledge to prospective budtenders. So, in addition to helping staff stores, we were racing to roll out our retail training offerings to ensure a safe, compliant, retail experience. This is when I learned how hard it is to market a cannabis brand.
We just wanted to purchase a few radio spots. I come from a radio background, so I’m really familiar with how to purchase a spot. However, I wasn’t prepared for being turned down by a team of lawyers who felt our ad was far too risky to air prior to October 17th. To be clear – we were selling TRAINING, education, a course! However, just the hint of it being about cannabis was seen as offside. Digital channels also proved problematic (and still are even post-legalization). In the end, we launched some guerilla marketing tactics and managed to pull things off, but this was the first time in my lengthy career as a marketer where I’d had trouble getting someone to take my money to book ads.
We also weren’t done with workplace impairment training. Everyone who had put this work off to the last possible minute, was now in a PANIC to get this done before October 17th. So many companies, large and small were still unprepared for legalization on October 17th. Our training team lived on planes and in airports for 60 days leading up to legalization, literally flying from one end of the country to the other implementing sessions and helping companies rework their drug and alcohol policies. It was a very intense time.
As if this wasn’t enough, our friends at the University of Alberta School of Retailing were hosting a career day on October 16th. We decided to take part because we thought it would be fitting to promote career opportunities in cannabis to the next generation plus it was a compliant way to talk about our budtender courses. If you were in university, wouldn’t you rather be a budtender than a barista? We decided to have a little fun, so we stuffed 200 bags of gummy bears in small plastic pouches along with a Cannabis At Work sticker. It was a massive hit! Everybody asked us if these were “edibles”, which of course, they were edible, but not “edibles” infused with cannabis. That would have been illegal, but also, really, really expensive. They were, however, an amazing conversation starter.
Finally, let’s not forget the actual day itself, October 17th. Alberta led the charge with 17 stores opening that day. In many other provinces, the deadline was anticlimactic with few retailers opening their doors. Our team was invited to celebrate with our friends at Aurora that night. It was a monumental day for so many, who had persevered for so long in moving recreational cannabis legalization forward. I was just happy to have gotten through the insanity of my first three month on the job.
That’s the story of my early days in the cannabis industry. There will be more Cannabis Career Diaries in the future, but for now, we’ll pause things here. Thanks for coming along for the ride!