Pandemic ‘fast-forwarded everything’ for nation’s largest cannabis retailer
The cannabis industry has its own set of idiosyncratic challenges due to its federal legal standing but, during the first wave of pandemic lockdowns, chain dispensary Curaleaf found itself, like all other retailers, also facing the challenge of pursuing digital transformation to do socially-distanced business.
In a BrainTrust Live session on LinkedIn and Facebook earlier this week, Chris Mellilo, vice president of retail for Curaleaf, spoke with RetailWire editor-in-chief George Anderson about the steps Curaleaf took to reshape its operations to meet customer needs in places where cannabis retailers were labeled “essential” at peak lockdown. This consisted of most of the states in which Curaleaf does business. (The company has recently expanded to 23 locations with the acquisition of dispensary chain Grassroots.)
“The pandemic on the whole has absolutely changed everything we do,” Mr. Mellilo said. “The silver lining there is it has fast-forwarded everything we needed to do, which is catch up to more traditional expectations of retail.”
The lockdown-induced enhancements included:
- Geolocation via their website which points people to the nearest dispensary and provides a menu of cannabis products so that the customer can order remotely;
- Curbside pickup where necessary;
- Debit cards built around their hand-held ATM solution to eliminate cash transactions.
The “essential” label and the need to provide socially-distanced service allowed Curaleaf to benefit from the relaxation of some state regulations; for instance, they were able to begin doing delivery in some states where it had previously been illegal to do so.
The ultimate goal of the retailer is to streamline the retail cannabis experience into something less medical-feeling — which is often the case, due to legal cannabis’ roots in medical-only dispensaries — and more comfortable, providing for all levels of familiarity with the product and all ranges of desire for interaction with in-store staff.
Curaleaf is also envisioning taking unprecedented steps in the space, like having consistently branded cannabis products available throughout the country on the model of a traditional CPG like Coca-Cola.
Even amid loosening restrictions, cannabis retailers like Curaleaf are still a ways off from the mainstream, especially due to banking restrictions which prevent them from processing remote transactions.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will the pandemic give cannabis retail a push in the direction of being treated more like traditional retailers? How do you see legal cannabis retail progressing in the next five years, and do you think Curaleaf’s attempt to create a national brand of cannabis products will come to fruition?