Creating a Bond

By: David Wylie

From Aesthetics to Celebrity, Here’s How Cannabis Retailers Are Building Loyalty

It’s no secret that cannabis retail is ultra-competitive—margins are low and the number of stores is high. In communities where private stores are even allowed, independents have to face off against big chains, and perhaps government-run stores. In the face of those challenges, here’s how five different cannabis store owners are pulling people through their doors and creating a sense of loyalty among repeat customers.

“Cosmic Charlies is pretty far out, man.”

On Toronto’s Queen Street West, Canada’s most crowded street when it comes to cannabis shops, Cosmic Charlies is pretty far out, man.

The store’s name is a reference to a Grateful Dead song. (And maybe that’s enough said.)

“We did a lot of fun stuff with the design. It’s almost like Willy Wonka’s dispensary on the moon,” says Sean Kady, who owns the shop with his brother, who’s aptly named Charlie.

“Our store’s a trip. Every time you come back, you catch something you missed the last time.”

Courtesy of Cosmic Charlie’s Photo: Carly Boomer

Kady says he and his brother work hard to make the store stand out on what he calls “the most fiercely competitive micro-market in Canada.” There are about 20 stores located on Queen Street West.

Beyond their wacky aesthetics, Cosmic Charlies has a thoughtfully curated cannabis menu, including many options from Ontario’s Flow Through program that makes fresh, limited drops available on demand.

“It gives retailers access to products that a lot of the more corporate chains don’t carry,” he says. “We pride ourselves on carrying things you can’t find at other places. That’s definitely an advantage.”

Farm-gate Fresh Indigenous Cannabis

All Nations’ farm-gate model draws cannabis consumers into the store on Shxwhá:y First Nation, near Chilliwack, BC, to purchase fresh cannabis.

They operate on a government-to-government (Section 119) agreement; it’s the first farm-gate model in the Fraser Valley—and one of only three currently open in the province.

Their cannabis products are popular with consumers. “We do have a presence in most retailers across BC and some other provinces as well. The All Nations’ name and brand has fortunately received quite a bit of traction and brand recognition simply on that merit,” says Stacey Duffy, director of retail.

“Visitors can buy cannabis as fresh as buds packed in the morning.”

Visitors to the All Nations retail store can buy cannabis as fresh as buds packed in the morning then out on shelves that afternoon. They also have a head start on carrying their own branded products, with All Nations’ produced cannabis in their store at least two weeks ahead of others.

They support other local growers with shelf space by stocking some of their store through BC’s direct delivery program, in which producers can ship to stores without having to go through the provincial wholesaler.

Duffy says she knows the All Nations retail store is good at drawing customers because it’s surrounded by other shops, and that means people have to drive past other stores to get specifically to them. They offer tours of their nearby growing facility, which people often stop in for while driving to or from Vancouver.

They also consult and work with other Indigenous bands. All Nations is currently poised for expansion, with seven more stores planned in BC, focussing on the Vancouver area as well as potential locations in the Interior.

‘Where Everybody Knows Your Name’

Unity Marguerite Whittaker, who owns Oceanside CWeed in Vancouver Island’s Parksville community, says her store competes with three others in the small BC city, including a government store.

Courtesy of Oceanside CWeed

She creates connections with customers by building community through gatherings, networking, and community involvement. “It’s like ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name,” she says.

Along with being on social media, Whittaker says she builds an email list of customers because it’s more reliable for the long term. “When it comes to other platforms, they disappear.”

With a target audience of older women, the store hosts an event on the 30th of every month for seniors called ‘Merryatrics Monthly.’ They serve coffee and biscuits, as well as offer discounts on some products.

Overall, Whittaker says she tries to create a safe and comfortable space, especially for older women.

Happy Staff Makes for Happy Customers

At Calyx and Trichome in Kingston, Ontario, owner Jennawae Cavion says her stores stand out through superior customer service and happy staff. “We don’t really have a loyalty program because it is a race to the bottom in terms of price,” says Cavion.

“We have competitive pricing and that helps, and we have really great locations—they’re physically in strategic spots and that’s important. Ultimately, it’s a matter of taking care of the staff so that they take care of customers.”

She says they pay a living wage and provide time during each shift to invest in their own personal cannabis education.

“There’s a lot to be said for staff who remember customers’ names.”

“If you have miserable staff, they treat customers terribly. We have our staff in our home,” she says. “We don’t ever profit off of staff. They pay cost for cannabis and get a lot of cannabis free from us because we sample them all the time.”

Cavion says stores must be able to earn loyalty in ways that are non-monetary. “Cannabis prices are super low. The average gram is way below the unregulated market at this point. Cannabis has never been more available or less expensive,” she notes.

“There’s a lot to be said for staff who remember customers’ names and are whistling while they work. Customers do see it.”

Time in the Spotlight Builds Name Recognition

A little bit of celebrity has gone a long way for Cierra Sieben-Chuback, who owns Living Skies Cannabis in the Prairies. She won one of the first seven cannabis store licences in Saskatoon while she was still in post-secondary school studying business. Sieben-Chuback now has four stores.

“At the beginning, I got a lot of media coverage.”

“At the beginning, I got a lot of media coverage being a young female university student. It was a great story for people to hear,” she says. “I feel like that really helped people learn about Living Skies Cannabis.”

Born and raised in Saskatoon, Sieben-Chuback says she knows the city better than any other person and wants to make cannabis affordable for everyone. Battling for customers based on price can be challenging when competing as an independent against corporate stores, she notes. “I like to think that people also do resonate with supporting a local business.”

Shopping locally helps ensure profits stay in the community, she says, adding they support many local charities and causes.

Top image courtesy of Cosmic Charlie’s Photo: Carly Boomer