Cannabis & Main: The Dispensary Experience is 'About Comfort and Giving People Permission to Use the Product'.

Civilized's podcast 'Cannabis & Main' is back with celebrated marijuana journalist Riccardo Baca returning to host the second season, which is brought to you by Fluent Cannabis. On the latest episode, Ricardo's guest is Sally Vander Veer, CEO of Medicine Man, a Colorado-based cannabis dispensary now in its tenth year of operation. Sally and Ricardo talk about the growth of the dispensary experience, training budtenders, microdosing and much more. 

You can check out the latest episode of 'Cannabis & Main' below or download it for free from podcast providers like iTunes, Spotify and Stitcher.

Ricardo Baca: Hello, hello and welcome to Cannabis & Main, a civilized podcast where we extract one element from today's cannabis scape and go deep. I'm your host Ricardo Baca, founder of Grasslands, a journalism-minded agency and it is so great to be with you today. You can learn more about this show alongside the marijuana news and cannabis lifestyle coverage you crave from Civilized found on the World Wide Web at civilized.life.

This week we're going to dive deep into cannabis and the modern dispensary experience with a guest who is legitimately one of the most experienced recreational marijuana dispensary owners in the history of America's regulated marketplace. Now, I don't care how long you've been shopping at dispensaries. Everybody who has set foot inside a legal cannabis shop in the last 6 to 12 months has likely noticed the epic evolution taking place at the retail level. If we go back further five years ago in Washington State, or even 15 years ago in California, we see an even more pronounced arc of dispensary style, customer experience, aesthetics and overall feel.

While most dispensaries used to resemble like a bare bones bodega—something that's basic, sometimes vaguely marked storefront with little to no decoration, and a no-frills approach to retail norms or product display—the dispensary 2.0 movement sweeping the legal world is the exact opposite. Think million dollar storefronts with display cases showing off the plant and the myriad products it's responsible for. Retail outlets that thoughtfully incorporate the neighborhoods and communities that surround each individual location, shellacked boutiques with a record player in the corner and minimalist display cases spread throughout the floor. And even educational stations identifying and breaking down the many new products and devices of modern cannabis, which are often confusing to newcomers and consumers.

Now, there are so many reasons for this sweeping evolution, most importantly, being that modern dispensaries exist in a safer world with greater protections than their predecessors. Of course, these modern retail storefronts would not be here were it not for the early operators, who risked their lives and their freedoms, so that we can now walk into a gorgeous, well-designed boutique for an eighth, an edible or an extract.

Bob Groesbeck, Planet 13 CEO (recording): Our goal is to out-Vegas Vegas. If we're going to participate in the cannabis space, and particularly at the retail level, we wanted to do something completely different, something over the top and something that would draw people to the facility because they wanted to experience all the amenities.

Ricardo: So, Cannabis and the Modern Dispensary Experience. Let's talk about it right here on Cannabis & Main. Sally Vander Veer is CEO of Medicine Man, a Colorado-based dispensary group celebrating its 10th year in the legal cannabis industry. Sally, how did we get here where marijuana shops more closely resemble a trendy clothing boutique than a corner bodega.

Sally Vander Veer: I think as you discussed in your opening, dispensaries were more utilitarian. We just needed a place to sell the product. Not a lot of thought was given to what is the experience? What does it look like? How does the consumer feel when they're in our space because they were just so excited to come in and get whatever they needed. Since then, the consumer has started to demand a better experience. And with the addition of 500 stores in Colorado, almost -

Ricardo: Just a couple.

Sally: As retailers, we've had to differentiate ourselves. We've had to make ourselves stand out and be a place that customers, even though it's expanding every day, there's still a finite number of customers with almost an infinite number of stores. It feels like, as a retailer. So you have to capture and retain those folks and keep them coming back.

Ricardo: Right. You've been in this industry for a whopping 10 years. Congratulations on the anniversary.

Sally: Thanks. We're really excited about that.

Ricardo: But there was also an unsureness about 2009, right? Because yeah, sure. It was new, but you also didn't have protection. So why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on decorating a storefront if you're not even positive that the DEA is not going to come in and shut you down?

Sally: Exactly. And even more simple than that, at the time, we didn't even know. We didn't know that we needed to create a retail experience. We knew we needed a cash register, a counter, some bags, you know, and some ways to get people in and out the door. So yeah, who would have known and why would we ever know?

Ricardo: Oh my god. It must be crazy to think about those early days of a regulated medical cannabis market in Colorado, the nation's first, and how simple it was compared to what your considerations have to be now.

Sally: It's so much more competitive now. I love it because it has elevated the industry. We hear that all the time, but it's true. So this competition and this consumer sophistication has driven dispensary owners and people in the space to elevate their game to start talking to people outside of cannabis. I have a merchandiser. I have a marketing professional. All of these things that we never added into our mix until probably 2014 when rec went legal. So we just didn't have those considerations before the market exploded.

Ricardo: I remember interviewing a prominent local retailer back in 2015 and he used to own some Subway franchises. He said he learned directly from fast food point-of-sale, how to get the customers attention on the way out, and he applied that to every single store after a year or two of being opened every single cannabis store. And suddenly, their average price per purchase or whatever that retail number is, suddenly skyrocketed. Because people were like, I do need that one header or I do need that piece of glass. Whatever it was that was suddenly within arm's reach.

I remember interviewing a retail scientist for a story a couple years ago. He was just saying there are tenets of retail that if you follow, you will be more successful. And one of them is so simple. Of course, you think about gaps or Apple stores or whatever. That is, the more you make the customer feel comfortable, the longer they spend in your store, and the more they spend on an individual purchase. He was just like, this is science. This is not me pulling something off the top of my head, we know this to be true and cannabis is starting to learn this. Because get rid of that crappy stained black couch and maybe elevate your waiting area game.

So maybe you have a water bottle that at least you're giving people there or offering soft drinks. I mean, tell me some of the lessons that you all have learned in the last decade of how you might be able to make that customer feel more comfortable and maybe elevate that sale.

Sally: Right. So for us, well, certainly the aesthetic plays a key. We have five stores now and each iteration is better than the last because we learned along the way. But the common thread throughout the stores aside from branding pieces is education for us. So it's about comfort and giving people permission to use the product. And by permission, I mean, educating them enough to have them feel comfortable with making that first purchase or trying something new, if they already are using.

So our stores are based around the consumer education experience. So that if you come into our store, you'll see that there are a lot of displays and there are lot of descriptions of products, descriptions of what it can and can't do for you. And then in addition, our budtenders are highly trained. That's an important piece too because budtenders have power, the power of the budtenders. And if you have a budtender who doesn't know their product or doesn't know what they're talking about, your consumer experience—no matter how gorgeous your store or whatever you're trying to present to them—is ruined. So, really our store focuses on the education piece starting with the budtender.

Ricardo: As I was talking earlier kind of in that intro, talking about how some of this dispensary 2.0 movement are really latching onto educational models. Of course, the budtender is central to that, and that's necessary and we know that, but I was exactly thinking about your Thornton store. Not your most recent but it's right off the highway. I remember I saw you and your family at the grand opening last year. My favorite element of that story is you walk in and yeah, there's the counters, there's lots of counters where you can cycle through a number of customers in an hour. But right in front of you are a number of educational displays that really break things down in very plain terms.

That you show them product, you show them what it looks like. You show them how it looks different from a similar product. I remember I was really pleased because I've always been an advocate of microdosing, especially with edibles. And I was thrilled to see that you had a little placard there saying, hey, microdosing. The state of Colorado says a single dose of edible cannabis is 10 milligrams. But these products, the Sweet Grass Kitchen - Butter Melts are 2.5. That's technically a quarter dose but I love it for so many reasons, because I don't always want 10 and sometimes I want 15 and sometimes I want 2.5.

Sally: I love that you said that because I love microdosing. I've been on this bandwagon for a long time. Tell me if you've had this experience. When I talked to budtenders in meetings and people in my universe, at first they were like, you're so lame, okay. One milligram style or two and a half milligrams is really what I like and what I can tolerate. I was kind of made fun of for that. I said, no guys, this is the future. People that look like me are going to want ... Don't want to be stoned and high all the time. Nothing wrong with that, but I want to be functionally well. So focusing on those microdosing products has been an uphill battle for me with my staff. I've been slowly pushing, pushing, pushing and now we have a great selection. And guess what? Guess who's coming to buy that? Women and elderly patients or elderly customers. Not to mention, people like you or people who just enjoy the two and a half milligrams or five milligrams or whatever it is. So it's, it's the future of cannabis.

Ricardo: I actually wrote a story or I think the headline, it was in Cannabis Now or Mg. The headline literally was, 'Microdosing is the Future of Cannabis'.

Sally: Okay, then we're on the same page.

Ricardo: Great minds, my friend. My wife totally has a 2.5 before yoga. It's perfect. It just loosens her up a little bit. Hey, it's Ricardo Baca. You're listening to Cannabis & Main, a Civilized podcast.

Ricardo: Now we continue with Cannabis & Main. I'm your host, Ricardo Baca. Let's get back to the conversation. What you were saying about your colleagues too, represents a fascinating view in the industry, and also something that I think is just wrong. Because we shouldn't shame people for their tolerance, right? I mean, this is a substance that affects everyone differently. We should celebrate that they're consuming at all or that it's benefiting them in whatever way it is. I think we see that in the explosion of the different brands that are now making these 2.5 or 5 milligram products in the edibles market, specifically.

Sally: And that's one of our highest-raising categories of sales is in that microdose category. Yeah. So that's great. Of course, if the segment of products continues to increase, then we're going to see more and more products entering that market. So I'm thrilled for that. And really, that is what's going to bring the moms and the grandmas into cannabis more quickly. That is going to allow the United States to feel really comfortable with this product or more comfortable than it already does.

Ricardo: Well, we it's important to recognize the reality of what's happening. I think the figure is somewhere around 15% of Americans have consumed cannabis in the last three or six months. So this is still a very small minority of the population. Granted, we know marijuana is not for everybody, but it is for other people outside of that 15% and of course, that's now a big target. Since we're talking about the modern dispensary experience, can you talk about how you at Medicine Man and your colleagues are maybe targeting that audience of non-consumers or new consumers? Because, of course, the 15 percent they're already your customers, they're already coming through the door.

Sally: Right. That's a great question. We've done some focus groups and we're learning as we go and we're paying attention to the data that's coming in. One of the biggest obstacles is the fear of not knowing what they're going to get into when they walk into a dispensary. So just like I had that fear 10 years ago, there's a lot of people that say, I don't know what a dispensary looks like. Am I going to walk in and people going to be high? Is it going to be ... They don't know. So we have created and continue to create series of videos that we post to our website about your first dispensary experience. This is what it will look like. These are things that you may encounter.

Sally: So have your ID and be ready to talk to your budtender and maybe think about these questions. There's no such thing as a dumb question and which is what we say to everyone and we really push that through. No such thing as a dumb question and come on in and experience it. This is what our store looks like. So that you have a notion of what you're walking into, and visually, are you comfortable with what you're seeing? In addition, now at the store level, since we're talking about designing dispensaries, we're making those open, we're making them well lit, we're not playing discussing music, we're playing comfortable music.

We're just making it almost a destination that you would enjoy going to. Not spa-like, we're not that. There's someone else who can do that, but comfortable, comforting, a place that you want to be. So we're seeing more and more people kind of dip their toes into the water.

Ricardo: That's great. Especially because you're our guest on this specific show, I'd love to talk about the catering that can be done to a local community. Because when I think about that in like a retail environment, my mind goes to when I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Denver and inevitably going to like some crappy Applebee's. But they would always like go to the local high school and grab a bunch of memorabilia and put it up on a wall and say look, we're Applebee's, we're one of you, we're part of Westminster or whatever the city might be. But you guys have taken a more thoughtful approach to this. I know this from the Thornton store and you just opened one in Longmont. Congrats.

Sally: Thanks.

Ricardo: You're taking inspiration from not only the local community and the neighborhood, but also what did this building used to be? Can you talk about how you guys have really drawn inspiration from these elements of locality to give these stores a unique personality. There really aren't like any other stores including other Medicine Man stores.

Sally: Yeah. Thanks, Ricardo. So all of our stores hopefully retain the same branding, the same look and feel in general, but I'll use the Longmont store as an example because it was so inspirational. It was tough to find real estate in the market. It was a competitive license. There was nowhere to go. We found this building, not the best location as far as being high traffic, but really cool building owned by a local legend in Longmont who owns a few of the car dealerships.

Sally: So I had a preconceived notion, met with my design folks, and we kind of thought what we knew what the store would look like, because we had to submit plans as part of the application process. But when we finally walked into the space with the owner, I walk in and it's a 5,000 square foot building, I had no idea what to expect. It was his man cave. It's within walking distance of his dealership, so he would just go there and chill out with his buddies. Walk in, red and black checker floors. A huge garage door with checkers. And then it's full of all these classic cars like pristine Mustangs, El Caminos, it was really, really fun. So he had this whole space filled with these gorgeous, gorgeous cars.

Then really thoughtfully curated, old school, gas station memorabilia signed like Standard Oil, SO and those kinds of things all over the place. So we walked in and I looked at my marketing director, Trey, and I said, "Forget it. Are you feeling what I'm feeling?" And he did. So we kept this sort of garage feel. We retained the look and feel of this man cave. We upgraded it, we updated it. But what I really, really focused on and what I wanted to keep was this huge garage door that had black and white checkers. So we had to reinforce that from the outside. Of course, you have all the restrictions and things like that.

Then we did this great black and white theme. Roger is the name of the guy who owns the building, provided us with this super cool Corvair, an antique Corvair, an old Corvair hood. And he had our logo drawn on it as a gift. So that's hanging in the store. He got me some old oil drums so that we can merchandise with that. He was just really integral to designing with us, which was super cool. What it's turned into is my favorite store. You got to come see it to believe it, but I-

Ricardo: I know. I need to get up there.

Sally: I think you'll dig it. It's great. White high ceilings. So far the reaction from the city of Longmont has been amazing. They walk in and they say, this is not what I thought. And really Longmont is a working town for the most part. A lot of car dealerships there. They used to engage in a lot of drag racing up and down Main Street -

Ricardo: Of course, they did. It was a local tradition for years.

Sally: It was a local tradition. So we're just sort of tapping into that. It's very accessible and a very cool place to go.

Ricardo: I love how you let the building speak to you.

Sally: That was a really fun part of it. I don't consider myself creative, but I do like to decorate and I love buildings. So just walking into a building and letting it talk to you instead of you saying, I'm going to put in my this and that and it's going to look like this. It makes it much more organic and better feeling outcome, I think, for the building.

Ricardo: So what's the customer reaction been? Because I've been in a lot of dispensary's and not only in Colorado, and I've definitely never seen anything like that, that has this garage aesthetic.

Sally: People love it. They say this is kind of garage-y but kind of cool and kind of hype and modern at the same time. They like the feel of it. They like the openness. We don't have a waiting room. I don't love waiting rooms. I like for people to be able to walk around. We have the same educational displays that we have in Thornton, similar. I like them to be able to be in the space, listen to what's going on. Look at the screens, kind of get their questions ready, to get an idea of what they want. So far, people are coming back and that's the true test. You can come in once to be interested. But when we see customers are coming back two or three times a week, that's when I know we've done the right thing there.

Ricardo: So what I love about this, I mean, I was speaking about the evolution earlier and it's an industry wide evolution, but it's also like a microcosm of evolution for every business. For example, just knowing good chemistry. One of your competitors, they have three shops in Colorado and some in Mass. Their first store in East Colfax right by the state capital, it's just a tiny little store, it was utilitarian. And their most recent store out in Aurora is a lot more beautiful and thoughtfully designed. Same with The Clinic, another large group operating in multiple states and when they opened that flagship on Colorado Boulevard, crazy, crazy big beautiful structure.

Meanwhile, some of their other stores are a lot more modest. So when does that come in for you as the CEO of this business? So now you have these 2.0 dispensaries, are you renovating your first dispensary, this 9, 10-year-old workhorse out by the airport. Are you renovating that to be more representative of what the Medicine Man brand looks like now in the retail environment?

Sally: Certainly we are doing that. We have restrictions in that we're open from 8:00 to 10:00 every day. We don't close down. So it's really hard to do any type of renovation. But we had this snowstorm a couple weeks ago. I want to make sure my employees were safe and got home, so we closed at noon. That's a really stressful thing for me to close because I think, what if people know that we're open until 10:00 and they didn't get the text blast that we're closed. You feel this loyalty to your customers as well. So I can't even imagine closing down for two days or three days to get some wallpaper up.

Ricardo: Well, at the same time, I think the modern cannabis consumer recognizes the brands that treat their employees and their staff well, and to me that makes me want to shop there all the more. It's like, okay, that was a lunatic snowstorm here in Denver. I don't know if any of our listeners were paying attention to this thing. Hit Denver in March of 2019 and they called it a bomb.

Sally: Bomb cyclone.

Ricardo: Bomb cyclone.

Sally: It was terrifying. Like, what? Okay. We better get out of here.

Ricardo: I was the only one in my office, that's for sure. Definitely everybody work from home. I live less than a mile away so I just walked in basically snowshoeing. Obviously, when we're talking about the modern cannabis dispensary experience, we're talking about aesthetics and style and flourishes, but it's also about user experience. And you mentioned budtenders earlier. I'm guessing, and this is a wild guess, Sally, but your budtender training program 9, 10 years ago was probably a little bit different than it is now.

Sally: Okay, yeah. Our budtender training program was not existing 9 to 10 years. It was like, do you know how to smoke marijuana? Yeah. All right, you're hired. It was a little bit more than that, but it's much more sophisticated now. I'm friends with Maureen, we use Maureen McNamara's, Cannabis trainers. We're vendor certified or responsible vendor, all of our budtenders go through that training. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's ongoing training every day.

Sally: We have Friday ... Nobody's going to want to work for me after they hear this. But at 7:00 AM every Friday, we have budtender meetings. We bring in our vendors and they teach again, they reinforce what the budtenders are selling and we continue on that education route. So it's important. I hear people coming to me from other stores and they say, you got a meeting to learn about products? We just had a binder and we had to look through it. So I can't imagine. I feel like that's a little bit reckless to not have your frontline completely trained or as trained as they possibly can. So that's a big piece.

Ricardo: That is huge. Especially because you and your colleagues are making decisions daily on what products to carry or not carry, or maybe bring on a new line. All of those decisions require education to your frontline staff, which is the budtender, which is the face of your company. Because it's not only about understanding the product, although that's massively important.

Sally: So important.

Ricardo: It really is about a professional interpersonal skills that you need and so many atmospheres, but not all 21-year-olds come to you equipped with that ability.

Sally: And if you spend enough time working on bringing these people to where they need to be, they're very receptive for the most part, and eager to learn. It's a tough job being a budtender. You're dealing with people who are happy, sad, sick, dying.

Ricardo: True.

Sally: Sometimes I look in the eyes of my budtenders and I'm like, go back there for a minute, because you need a break, because I know that that was just a really tough customer. So I couldn't do it and I respect that they can. But again, get giving them the tools, as many tools as possible to facilitate a great customer experience is what we're all about.

Ricardo: Right. In season one of this show, last year we talked to Constance Finley. Do you know Constance? We were talking about the construct of the budtender. We were introduced to this modern dispensary experience via California, of course, and the budtenders in these Renegade shops back in the day, and that's just the model that has been adopted in most places throughout the world. One of the points that she made, which was really interesting, is that should these recommendations, should that power be in the hands of somebody who's making $10 an hour or even $20 an hour? Regardless, somebody who doesn't have the medical training or background. It just brought up a fascinating side conversation to us.

Sally: I listened to that episode and I was with her on some things and not with her on others, because the piece that's missing, if you add the medical component is accessibility, right? The ease of getting that and there's a lot of people that don't want to jump through those hoops. We train the budtenders, you are not a medical professional. If someone asks you a question about how do I cure cancer, certainly you tell them....Give them the information that this is not a cure. You have to almost disclaim before you start talking.

Ricardo: This kind of brings up something from my early days in this. I haven't been in this industry nearly as long as you have. But I started covering this industry as a journalist in 2013. As a part of that, simply because of the newsworthiness of my beat as marijuana editor at the Denver Post, my old job. I remember I was on The Colbert Report. So you're talking to Stephen Colbert and then you're talking to him a little bit afterward. I was talking to his producers after the fact and they're like, "You know what I was most impressed with?" And I was like, "What's that?" They said, "You weren't afraid to tell him? You know, I don't know the answer to that question." 

Too many people come on our show - that was a big show, it ran for 10+ years or whatever - too many people come on and Stephen asks them a question and they feel pressured to answer. This relates back to our conversation because I think it is easy to feel that pressure to answer. Too often, I'm guessing budtenders are like, you're an ex-marine and you have PTSD. Well shoot, maybe just try this edible. I think that if I had any advice, which I did write about in that column that I mentioned, always feel free to admit when you don't know the answer to something, because that's so much better than putting bad information into the world.

Sally: That's great. I'm going to adopt that. I'm going to send an email when I get back to the office today. But that's a really good giving people permission to not know. Because we all feel that we have to know.

Ricardo: Sally, what else is there about the modern dispensary experience that we haven't talked about? We talked about making sure your dispensary is warm and welcoming, and that your staff is educated and thoughtful. What haven't we talked about that really is affecting this modern experience at the retail level?

Sally: So the hardest part is getting the customers in the door. Getting them to find you and come in. So once they're there, how do you retain them? That's done, obviously, through a great customer experience, great budtender interaction. In addition, you also need some sort of customer loyalty program. I love If I get a little card or if I'm going to get a discount if I do something. I'll do anything for a discount.

Ricardo: So true.

Sally: So we've had several iterations of customer loyalty programs. Right now we're using Baker, and it's a login on an iPad next to the next to the point-of-sale. They put in their phone number and they get points and they can use those points to get a 10 cent joint or gear or even a tour of Medicine Man. But customer loyalty part is important. If you don't have a customer loyalty program, I think you're missing the boat. It's also our direct line of communication in this really noisy dispensary retail environment. A direct line of communication to your customer to say, hey, guess what? Today, ACE are $14, come on in.

Sally: We try not to be too intrusive. We send maybe one or two texts a week. But we do see a direct correlation, a blip in sales. On Wednesday, we send it out and we say $14 ACE, Wednesday sale. We sell a whole heck a lot of $14 ACE. So it's a great way to stay in touch with. In addition, it's a great way to communicate too. Hey, we're closed today. Snowstorm. Everyone stay safe. We're closed. And it's our goal to get every customer who comes through that door into that database.

Ricardo: This is Cannabis and the Modern Dispensary Experience. Sally Vander Veer, thank you so much for coming on our show.

Sally: Thanks, Ricardo. Always good to spend time with you.

Banner Image: David McNew / GettyImages

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