A First-Timer’s Guide for Dispensaries, Patients and Customers

A First-Timer’s Guide for Dispensaries, Patients and Customers

Harvest, dispensary, San Francisco, marijuana, galleries, ICBC
Patients enjoy the selection at San Francisco's Harvest dispensary.

Everything old is new again – especially the cannabis consumer. Even old timers, steeped in the culture, have had a steep learning curve with legalization and thousands of new products. Edibles? CBD? Dabs and vape rigs? Oh my. So, imagine what it’s like to be a total newbie, walking into a dispensary for the first time.

Like other popular products with a long but dubious pedigree (think alcohol), there is a predictably robust market now that legalization is evolving and expanding. Old and new consumers alike are curious – but what trends are vendors and marketers seeing in consumers? How do you make sure the new consumer experience leads to repeat business?

“Since Prop 64 passed, we are seeing an influx of newbies and we are really excited about it. There is definitely more interest in trying cannabis and exploring the different uses,” said Mikayla Kemp, training manager at MedMen, located in West Hollywood, CA. “And we still get the regular patients who come in knowing exactly what they want.”

“Before Prop. 64, MedMen West Hollywood was averaging about 18 to 19 new patients daily,” MedMen Marketing Director Daniel Yi added. “Since passage of Prop. 64, the daily average of new patients is 25.

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“We don’t think all of that increase is due to Prop 64,” Yi explained. “The dispensary had been increasing new patient count even before – but we do hear anecdotally that with passage of Prop 64, a lot more people who were thinking about getting their physician recommendation felt more emboldened to do so.”

MedMen’s customer experience begins with its storefront location on busy Santa Monica Blvd. Featured on local news during election night last November, MedMen was repeatedly referred to as having an “Apple Store” feel, all light woods and an open, airy atmosphere. Red-shirted budtenders quickly recognize newbies, especially when the customer seems a little overwhelmed.

Donna Serrato, MedMen, budtender, retailing, people, dispensary“Nothing breaks the ice like a personal touch. We encourage our staff to introduce themselves by name, and make the patient feel comfortable,” she said. “The store environment can also help ease apprehension with first-timers. MedMen stores are set up to be inviting – big windows, plenty of light, open layout and no wait room.”

Cannabis Commodities Exchange CEO Sohum Shah says he believes one of the fastest growing demographics is the “new” consumer; those who are cannabis-inexperienced but curious and more willing to explore than in the past – and a lot of them are middle-aged women.

“Retail stores and dispensaries really need to focus on providing the best retail experience possible – let manufacturers and cultivators focus on product quality and consistency,” Shah told mg. “Ask yourself in what kind of store your mother or grandmother would feel comfortable shopping. It already requires courage for new consumers to walk into a marijuana store for the first time, without the ‘stone-y’ vibe that many stores have. As an industry, we need to do our best to make new consumers feel comfortable purchasing and consuming our products.”

No longer shrouded in a smoky, psychedelic haze, a key component of attracting and retaining new consumers is pro-active education for newbies who want to know more.

“I can’t stress this enough,” Shah added. “Educate consumers on the benefits and effects of different types and forms of cannabis products. Consumer education should be genuinely focused on creating long-term, informed consumers, and not on immediate sales of specific products.”

Some newbies, either through inexperience or eagerness, may decide to dive in the deep end of the pool without consultation about their needs or expectations. Professional guidance from a budtender is very important to ensuring the new cannabis consumer doesn’t have an unpleasant experience.

“One example would be to teach consumers to refrain from making purchase decisions based on potency (THC or CBD percentage). If necessary, give them the alcohol analogy,” Shah offered. “When most people walk into a liquor store, they don’t go immediately for the 95-percent grain alcohol (unless they are throwing a frat party or trying to start a fire). Most alcohol products are less than 50 percent alcohol by volume but have unique smells, tastes, and effects.”

At Buds & Roses, in Studio City, Ca., new customers have already been calling and dropping by, staff trainer Cassie said, causing a spike in those without required medical certification. Especially after the election, many didn’t realize recreational marijuana won’t be available until 2018 in California, if the recreational market is able to withstand possible challenges from the feds.

“We’ve had to turn away a lot of new patients who don’t have a doctor’s recommendation. Even with legal ‘adult use’ in California, recommendations are still necessary to purchase cannabis from a dispensary,” Cassie said, indicating increased interest bubbling up from an already expanding market.

She agrees with Shah’s stand on education and customer service. “The first time a patient comes to Buds & Roses we work to gauge whether or not they are familiar with dispensaries. We really believe in well-rounded patient education, so helping our patients navigate the process is essential for us.”

For new customers, the quirky process can be intimidating. Cassie suggested new customers should also know what to expect, to avoid that awkward unfamiliarity of being processed in a wait room.

“[It’s] different in every shop – but basically patients should expect to be met by a security guard, have their medical recommendations and IDs verified, and then be allowed to shop. A new customer might find those protocols disorienting, but it is just a normal part of the experience!

“Our budtenders use this first meeting as a chance to evaluate every patient’s needs,” Cassie explained further. “They determine what types of cannabis would most benefit each person then steer them towards the appropriate products, help them to predict a therapeutic dosage, and educate them in whatever ways necessary. This can be anything from ‘how to use a pipe’ to the genetics of a particular seed. Sometimes this is a very time intensive process, but we appreciate the chance to educate anyone about anything cannabis.”

Something that will never change? The effect a high level of customer service can have on increasing your business’ reputation through word-of-mouth advertising. As the old adage goes: If a customer has a good experience, they’ll tell all their friends – if they have a bad experience, they’ll tell the whole world.

One way to guarantee a good experience is the tried-and-true method of paying attention to the customer, make sure their needs are met and, if possible, exceeded. Make sure, on their very first visit, to get off on the right foot.

“Phrases like ‘How did you hear about us?’ or ‘What effects are you looking for?’ or ‘Tell me about your favorite cannabis experience…’ are always helpful [icebreakers],” Cassie suggested. “Finding out about them and their cannabis experience is always key. If you can uncover why someone chose to come to a dispensary, it’s pretty easy to start a conversation about cannabis.”

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