As a former owner and operator of a 25,000sf indoor cultivation facility in Denver and 2 retail dispensaries in Colorado, I can understand how the COVID19 situation we are living these days can affect your business.
Having many people working together will increase their risks of contagion with this disease and having many customers together in the store can also mean getting the virus, a risk that no employee and no customer want. Thus social-distancing: a precaution many workers and customers are taking voluntarily to avoid contact with a potentially infected person or surface that may get them sick.
We've assembled a few tips for dispensary businesses to help navigate this pandemic.
TIP 1: RESEARCH LOCALLY & GLOBALLY
As of March 20, 2020, in some places like California and Oregon there are mandatory lockdown (stay-at-home) orders (with some exceptions). So the first step is to understand the situation in your licensed territory. What are the required limitations by law today? Some places like Pennsylvania have ordered “non-essential” businesses to shut down (as of 03/19/20) and some other places like Colorado are still operating normally as of today. But things will get worse before they get better, therefore we must prepare for what may come over the next few months by creating a plan.
Every good plan starts with thorough research. Understanding what rules and orders have been in place in other cannabis markets allows us to prepare for that potential situation in your territory. Read what other places (including internationally) have implemented so you can consider those extreme conditions and plan accordingly. What if they shut down your business? Will your plants survive? What will that mean for your business and what can you do to prepare for that situation?
Los Angeles, for example, has listed cannabis dispensaries as “Essential Businesses” during their shutdown order (of non-essential businesses). The shutdown is set until April 19, 2020, but could be extended. I suspect that some other places will list only medical dispensaries as essential and some may only allow for delivery services and no stores to be open.
Remember to take a look at the larger picture by researching globally. There are places, like Peru, where driving a car is not allowed and to go to the supermarket or the pharmacy people require a special permit (it’s requested online). Have a worse-case-scenario plan ready for your business.
TIP 2: PROTECT DISPENSARY STAFF
Protect your greatest asset, your staff, because your store cannot operate without them.
So first know that they are risking themselves for your business and they should be rewarded for that. Maybe getting a full paycheck with less working-hours, maybe with other benefits. To ensure what matters most to them–their safety–you must provide solutions (that will cost you now but will save you later) to distance them from other co-workers and the customers.
Consider limiting store hours at your dispensary, just like many grocery stores have begun to implement. Some municipalities, while not implementing full lockdowns, are implementing curfews. Make sure your staff has enough time to get home when curfews are implemented.
Some dispensaries have implemented teller type glass barriers to protect their employees. Certainly providing necessary personal protective equipment to keep themselves safe: gloves, masks, suits, etc… If this seems overkill to you think about how you would feel if you were in close proximity to 50-100 people every day who may have the virus.
Cleaning and sanitizing surfaces constantly is also essential, so having a dedicated person doing that or at least a protocol to do it every 30 minutes is probably best. Be sure to offer hand-sanitizer before the entrance to your dispensary, in the waiting lobby, and at the point-of-sale.
As you reduce the number of allowed simultaneous customers in your store you should also reduce the number of budtenders and staff in the store as well. This will help your staff be in less contact with other staff and feel safer.
A side-effect of this pandemic is security. Robberies are increasing and you should protect your staff and customers from a potential break-in by having a security guard on-site (at least during business hours). They also need to be protected, so include them in your plan.
TIP 3: SOCIAL DISTANCING IN THE DISPENSARY
Customers will feel protected knowing your store is taking necessary measures to keep them safe.
LIMITING CUSTOMER CAPACITY. Typically the building core regulates how many people can be present in an establishment like that at the same time–this capacity is often shown on a visible sign near the entrance. But is that capacity safe for the recommended 6 ft social-distancing recommendation of the Center For Disease Control of the U.S.A.?
Many establishments have implemented a 50% capacity rule and others have a 10-50 people maximum gathering limit. This is obviously dependent on the size of your store, so use your common sense to calculate how many people can be 6 feet apart and walking comfortably through the store at the same time–limit the capacity to that.
LIMITING STAFF. As mentioned above, limiting the amount of staff working on the sales floor is essential. You will also be seeing fewer customers at one time, so less budtending staff will be necessary for operations.
Designate one person or manager every day to deal with things like deliveries. Moreover, consider having deliveries of larger quantities from your suppliers less often to give your employees a break from more interactions. This is the time where you can show your employees that you care for them, and I am sure they will in return sacrifice for you too.
TIP 4: KEEP IN CONTACT WITH CUSTOMERS
Inform your customers of your COVID19 Protocols to avoid confusion and a smooth implementation.
SOCIAL MEDIA. Use all the tools at your disposal to keep in contact with your customers: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat. This is a great way to get your message out to your customers.
TEXT MESSAGING SERVICES. In addition to regularly posting on social media, we recommend using a text-message service like Happy Cabbage, Sprouts or BAKER, to keep in contact directly with your customers and patients. Some services require you to opt-in at a kiosk, others, like Sprouts, will allow customers to text to opt-in (eg, "Text "Cannabis" to 55555 to opt-in to our text messaging service and keep up to date with the measures we are taking to protect our customers.")
ANSWERING MACHINE. If your phone system allows, update the message callers hear before someone picks up the phone to inform them of the new protocols, limited hours, or other measures they need to know before they travel to your shop. Also, encourage callers to follow you on social media platforms to stay up-to-date with any changes at the dispensary.
TIP 5: LIMIT INTERACTION WITH PRODUCT
The less people handling the product, the better.
DO NOT ALLOW CUSTOMERS TO SMELL SAMPLES. Now, many dispensaries allow customers to touch or smell flower or other products and this should also be limited or stopped altogether, as the contact may transfer the disease. So, keeping the products, particularly flower, from the customers is key.
Be sure to have terpene profiles and robust strain descriptions on hand so customers can understand what they are purchasing, without having to take a whiff themselves.
REQUIRE BUDTENDERS TO WEAR GLOVES. Requiring bud-tenders to use gloves and chopsticks to pick bud and other products will prevent cross-contamination. Chopsticks should be sanitized between uses.
PRE-PACKAGE FLOWER. If you currently operate a "deli-style" dispensary, and your laws permit, consider moving to pre-pack model to limit the transaction times at the dispensary during the pandemic. While customers may be used to the deli-model to choose their own buds, they will likely be happy to see that your dispensary is taking measures to protect their safety.
TIP 6: ALTERNATIVE SHOPPING METHODS
But how can we effectively have less traffic in our stores without sacrificing sales?
One creative solution we recommend is limiting the number of visits per customer to 1 per week max. How can we do that? Maybe we require a larger minimum purchase by weight or price or maybe we track our customers visits through our POS system.
ADVANCE ORDERING. Online ordering is one way to keep sales going, while limiting customer time at the dispensary. Leafly and iheartjane are two solutions that offer online ordering solutions for dispensaries, with customer-friendly interfaces for shopping. Some dispensaries in Colorado have already moved to a solely-online-ordering model.
SPECIAL SALES. Maybe if the Coronavirus trend of confirmed cases in your city is alarming, consider having a blowout-sale in anticipation of a business shut-down or lock-down (where people can’t leave their homes). An early 420-sale of sorts. Stock-up and lock-down? It is true that this year 420 will last a whole month… in lock-down?
DELIVERY. If you can’t operate your store, then think about partnering with a delivery service, if it is allowed in your area.
TIP 7: ALLOW REMOTE WORK
If there is no reason for a person to come sit in an office, protect them (and your other employees) by allowing them to work from home.
Allow your people whom are not necessary to be in the dispensary to work remotely, particularly those doing marketing, compliance audits (except the physical inventory), taxes, payroll and other administrative tasks. When physical audits need to take place, consider having auditors come after hours, to limit their interaction with other employees.
Stay safe out there!