Despite what the numbers might show, successfully opening a cannabis store in Toronto, presents challenges that those not directly involved in cannabis retail might not know.
Since the start of 2021, Toronto has doubled the number of cannabis stores. According to the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS), the government-run provincial seller for Ontario, Toronto has roughly 300 stores open and operating at this time.
With stores bound to the licensed-costs set by the OCS and as the number of stores continues to rise, what sets the successful stores apart from one another?
Enter Jeff Pang and Angelica Liu, CEOs and masterminds of Green Merchant Cannabis Boutique. Not only have the two successfully opened six Green Merchant locations in Toronto since their launch in 2020, they’ve done so amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a rapidly depleting bud-tender market.
“It’s really, really hard to find good bud-tenders because there’s two factors,” Pang said. “One is COVID-19, and working as a front-line retail worker is not ideal for a lot of people. The second is that the growth of cannabis dispensaries has been insane and there’s no work force with previous work experience. So, it’s definitely a small pool of people to pull from.”
Since legalization was announced in October 2018, Ontario has seen its number of storefronts skyrocket, with 1,115 stores open in the province right now, compared to the 183 stores open this time last year, according to data obtained by MJBizDaily from the OCS.
This means the number of experienced bud-tenders actively looking for work continuous to get smaller and smaller, while the number of inexperienced bud-tenders rises. Despite this, Green Merchant Cannabis Boutique has managed to successfully open and operate their six locations while holding customer satisfaction at the core of their beliefs.
Culture and community
“So, we do a lot of different things. The number one thing is try to build a good culture,” Pang said. “When we hire people, we don’t necessarily hire people with cannabis experience. We hire people that would fit our culture. Good vibes, friendly people, growth mindset.”
This doesn’t just mean they deliver a unique and positive customer experience. Their employees are just as important to them. With an experienced bud-tender market getting smaller with every new store that opens, retaining workers through incentives is just another way Green Merchant continues to find success, Pang said.
“Anyone that works with us — they also pay cost for anything that they buy to try,” he said. “They get tips, they get sales targets and participate in sales contests, and most importantly, they join a network of other Green Merchant Cannabis Boutique members; it’s like a little family we’ve built.”
With roughly 930 stores having opened in Toronto since January, 2021, newly hired bud-tenders like Sakib Hassan have seen the cannabis job market explode. Having been apart of the cannabis industry only since August of last year at another independently owned dispensary in the East York region of Toronto, he credits his success to having prior knowledge, even though he didn’t have prior experience.
“I found an interest in cannabis and have been using cannabis for a while now,” Hassan said. “With that interest, I would do some research on my own on strains available and the way they are grown. So, I had some prior knowledge before my interview last year.”
The customer experience
Pairing his prior knowledge with his passion for connecting with others, Hassan demonstrates the traits of a successful bud-tender: knowledgeable, passionate and putting customer experience above all else. While he credits those traits for having obtained his Cannsell Certificate and the training he’s received since being hired six months ago, Hassan emphasizes the need for having knowledge of the product, but also of the customer experience.
“It only takes one bad experience for a weed smoker to walk away from cannabis,” Hassan said.
As the cannabis market grows, the message is clear. Building a successful culture starts from within. It might not always come down to who has the most experience. In fact, experience isn’t something the previously mentioned CEO’s rely on when hiring new bud-tenders.
“It’s more of how much they are willing to learn about the products,” Liu said.
“We typically do hire [experienced] users, but we have hired people that are newer users,” Pang said. “We mostly hire based on culture fit more than anything else. And part of that culture is, you know, enjoying cannabis, but we’ll never hire based off how much they consume. It’s not really a predictor in how they speak to [the product].”