Lauren Niehaus Shares 7 Things Retailers Can Learn from the Cannabis Industry
On 4/20, now considered the “national holiday” for cannabis retailers and consumers, I spoke with Lauren Niehaus, Executive Director of Government Relations at Trulieve.Trulieve has the largest retail footprint of cannabis dispensaries today, spanning 185 locations across 10 states — and growing. Growing is an aspect of what Trulieve currently does. Cultivation is part of the company’s operation. Like some other cannabis brands, they “manufacture” their own line of proprietary products and also sell them via other dispensaries.
Collaboration is among the many unique aspects of the cannabis industry, estimated to deliver $33.5B in sales in 2023, ahead of craft beer, chocolate, and eggs.
The cannabis industry may be the first to scale in an era where technology was easily accessible, so it never had to deal with some of the challenges other types of businesses face. From search to supply chain to in-store processes, the industry created a new retail experience.
“We all learned this together,” says Niehaus, who has been in the industry for about five years. Her previous government experience has been invaluable to Trulieve’s growth.
Even if you are not among the 5 million reported cannabis consumers in the U.S. today, exploring how cannabis retailers operate and market may expand your business thinking.
Cannabis users are a diverse group. Some consumers use it mainly for medical purposes and sleep, whereas others are more interested in its recreational effects. Trulieve owns a mix of recreational and medical dispensaries based on state regulations.
Cannabis legislation is extremely complex because it is governed at a state level. Therefore, brands must be tightly tied to each region’s unique requirements. See #2, below.
Here are seven aspects of the industry that have helped it (and Trulieve) thrive:
- Collaboration. As noted above, cannabis brands have had to work together to impact legislation and build a retail industry where none previously existed. Companies often share best practices and sell each other’s product lines.
- Regulation. Imagine as a multi-location food brand that you could only sell french fries in certain states or that your stores had to be a certain distance away from a school. Cannabis decision-makers must deal with a wide range of unique challenges. The types of people who work in this business must be comfortable with solving complicated problems to scale their operations.
- The Customer Experience. Greeters are commonplace when consumers enter dispensaries. They must check IDs and assist newcomers with questions. The age range of Trulieve shoppers spans 20s to 80s, and some have medical issues (e.g., cancer, anorexia, PTSD) that are being treated with cannabis. The role of a budtender is important because it involves a high level of consultative skill and familiarity with legally-mandated processes. Trulieve believes in hiring from the local community.
- Digitally-Powered Marketing. Search “cannabis near me,” and you’ll find many options. Trulieve’s technology group stays on top of its GMB listings and flags their stores with a “cannabis badge,” so Google will know that they are in a regulated industry. SEO agencies specializing in cannabis marketing must be on top of legal requirements. Search engines like Weedmaps have emerged so consumers can find local dispensaries that carry their preferred product line.
- Promotions and Personalized Deals. Store openings, celebrations of anniversaries, and 420 Day Events are all part of the marketing mix for cannabis retailers. Trulieve started their 420 Day promotion titled “42o for All” ten days prior to the actual celebration day, so they could avoid long lines. Convenience is important to the brand; team members are trained to offer personalized experiences and exemplary service. Especially as the number of dispensaries increases, building store brand loyalty becomes vital.
- Retail Store Design and Merchandising. Stigma around the category still exists, so Trulieve creates store footprints that immediately put a consumer or medical patient at ease. Blank packaging (boxes with no product inside) and special display jars are often used at point-of-sale to pique customer interest in new brands. Child-resistant “exit bags” must be tightly sealed, but, as in other retail stores, they can feature store branding, and some manufacturers focus on package sustainability. Drive-throughs are emerging, and as some dispensaries open in locations that were previously occupied by banks, retrofitting is less costly. Many state ordinances prevent drive-throughs, however.
- Innovation. Niehaus says, “Never again will we have such a challenging industry that we’re all getting smarter about — together.”
Niehaus says solid business strategy and practices are still essential despite the industry’s rapid growth and image issues.
Manufacturing, supply chain, real estate, regulatory compliance, digitally-fueled marketing, local search, and merchandising all come into play in this complex industry, and companies like Trulieve are committed to legally and responsibly paving the way for all brands.