‘We built a pneumatic tube system’: Canada’s indie pot shops on opening during a pandemic
The rules around opening a cannabis storefront can be confusing at the best of times – and these have not been the best of times. In addition to the specific obstacle course that each province presents for Canadian cannabis retailers, the wave of pot shops that have opened against the backdrop of COVID-19 have faced unpredictable consumer patterns, empty streets, and ever-evolving health and safety protocols, not the least of which has been a cap on the size of gatherings.
Five independent cannabis retail operators told us, in their own words, about the experience of opening their stores during COVID-19.
My store is in a strip-mall complex. When Alberta announced that cannabis stores were an essential service, I was like, we are good to go, but all the businesses beside me were basically dead. When I first opened, yeah, I had a little bit of a rush from friends and family, but there were days when I was seeing as low as four or five hundred dollars in sales and maybe 10 to 15 customers throughout the day.
[The Calgary neighbourhood] Ogden has a very strong black market still. The black market was thriving during COVID just because people were having it delivered to their houses. AGLC [Alberta Gaming & Liquor Commission] has pretty strict restrictions on advertising. I would open the door and try to wave people into my store just to get anybody in. It looked like it might not pull through for the first little while.
I go through isopropyl alcohol like it’s water. It’s my number-one priority, keeping the place clean and sterile.–Sam Sanders, Glenmore Cannabis owner
My dad came out to help for the first few weeks from Vancouver. I couldn’t afford to pay staff and I also didn’t have enough business to justify the staff. We started slowly developing a community feel and relationship with customers. We would chat about what’s going on, chill for a bit, and that helped form the way the store is now. It doesn’t have a corporate feel at all.
It’s definitely ramped up significantly. It took a very long time for people to even know I was there. Once more people were coming into the complex, I quickly saw [business] increase.
I go through isopropyl alcohol like it’s water. It’s my number-one priority, keeping the place clean and sterile. The hardest part has been managing inventory. When I first opened I wasn’t that busy so I was doing small orders. Then I started getting busier and I didn’t have enough cannabis, and people were leaving because I didn’t have what they were looking for.
Moving forward, post-pandemic, will be about finding the proper groove. It’s been an up-and-down roller coaster ride with closures and different things. It’s just a day-by-day, week-by-week thing.
I can never remember my new customers now, because they just all look like masks. One thing that I miss a lot is being able to smile at your customers. I miss that. I miss the interaction.
–Sam Sanders, Glenmore Cannabis owner
I had prepared for two years to open a traditional brick-and-mortar retail experience, with online and click-and-collect being maybe one-tenth of the operating model. We were supposed to open in April. There was basically a three-week period in April when I was preparing to open the store as just an online business. SEO/SEM [Search Engine Optimization/Search Engine Marketing] went from being one-tenth of my problem to ten-tenths of my problem.
It’s given us a unique opportunity to have an online sales channel that was never anticipated to be in our operating model. But we need volume to make these businesses work. My biggest business opportunity is to shift my existing customer base to online. When customers go online they are, on average, spending 32 to 37 percent more than they are in store.
–Mike Dunn, 1922 co-founder/director
It was super stressful, super scary, especially opening a business. There was just so much uncertainty. You didn’t even know off the bat if cannabis was going to be essential or not. We hadn’t even opened yet and we were trying to follow the rules on what we can do and what we can’t.
We had to halt construction for three weeks during the heavy lockdown time. And then when we did restart construction we could only have two people working at a time on each floor. That just extends our construction time. I [was worried because I] told AGCO [Alcohol & Gaming Commission of Ontario] that I would be done by this date. Was I going to get pushed to the back of the lineup [for inspections]? There was just so much uncertainty and stress, all of these factors just playing on each other. You have to put your head down and battle through and take every precaution possible.
We needed a way to bring our product from the basement up to the main floor. We ended up with a pneumatic tube system.–Andrew Rhodes, co-founder, The Neighbourhood Joint
We needed a way to bring our product from the basement up to the main floor. We ended up with a pneumatic tube system. It is something that has been a small benefit [during COVID]. It absolutely cuts down on the number of hands touching the product, the time spent touching the product.
Part of why we picked this neighbourhood [the Beach] is because it’s a great community and you have so many community events going on. You have JazzFest and the One of a Kind show and every Thursday in the summer they do movies in the park, which is 20 metres from our shop. It’s almost like a resort town in the summer. We’re expecting all of these international tourists, Toronto locals, suburban locals, they all come to the beach for the summer. None of that happened. It’s definitely subdued our sales.
We put all kinds of different precautions in to keep everybody safe. If you can’t wear a mask, we have an atrium and can bring you a mobile POS [Point of Sale] and cash machine to fill your order. We brought in a fogger machine which uses hydrochloric acid and sprays a disinfectant fog. We do that every night after we close.
Overall we’re still very happy with how it’s going. We’re doing our absolute best to strive to keep everybody safe.
–Andrew Rhodes, co-founder
We felt we could contribute to the overall health of the community if we opened when we did. In Winnipeg, we have more CBD customers. Talking with our staff, a lot of our customers in Winnipeg are people new to the cannabis industry who want to try a new product to help with anxiety.
We are really lucky to have staff members that are already involved in the Winnipeg community. It means a lot to them to support other entrepreneurs and local businesses. Because our head offices are in Regina, we don’t have our community in Winnipeg yet. Our staff was so awesome at getting us connected with other local businesses within the city. That definitely helps to have that support.
–Chelsea Petterson, director of retail operations
The grand opening was amazing. We had a lot of people coming in, showing support, coming from [suburbs such as] Scarborough, Oakville, you name it. The community came out for sure. We opened, and then we went [into more restrictive COVID protocols]. It slowed down after that tremendously. Even the foot traffic, it was noticeably different, because all of the bars and restaurants were shut down on the street.
Even someone who lives down the street came in yesterday and said, “You’re finally open! I’ve been waiting for you guys to open!” And I’m like, “Yeah, for two weeks now.” But he’s not out walking. He’s at home so he wouldn’t have really noticed that we are open.
The roots and core of what we are is a community space. We had our Halloween event, with a tarot card reader, a local community DJ, and a drag queen performance. We had a Super Smash Bros. gaming night. Sundays were open deck, so we were teaching anyone who wants to learn how to DJ. I think I’m the first one on the signup sheet. All of these things, post-COVID, it would be a really big thing, but [before Toronto went back on lockdown] it was just a 10-person signup to keep the numbers down, and they were just here for 30 minutes.
For us right now it is really important that we continue doing what we’re doing, which is reaching out to the community, having these reduced size events that resonate with them, so they feel like this is not just a space where we show up and shop. This is a space where you can feel connected with the team that is here.
–Vivianne Wilson, GreenPort founder and president