8 things we learned

Marijuana Venture’s third national event for retailers saw more attendees, more speakers and more exhibitors

Marijuana Venture hosted its third successful RAD (Retail and Dispensary) Expo in October, bringing more than 2,000 attendees to the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Oregon, to check out nearly 200 exhibitors and listen to advice from more than 50 expert speakers.

The show has grown steadily over the past two years by focusing specifically on the retail sector of the industry, rather than taking the come-one, come-all approach favored by the majority of cannabis events.

“We wanted this event to be disruptive in the cannabis space,” Marijuana Venture publisher and show organizer Greg James said. “Nothing against other shows, but this is a business event and we wanted high-quality attendees who are looking to grow their retail businesses. And we don’t charge attendees a bunch of money because they are the exhibitors’ customers.”

James also thanked the event’s sponsors for making it a success: Futurola, Axis Display Group, Leafly, OPTO International, Fairwinds, Uniweb, Jahabow, KlickTrack, Salient, Trione, Legato and Weedmaps, as well as industry partners Seattle Hempfest, KindTyme, Leaf Nation, Enlighten, Nugl, Cannabis & Tech Today, Cannabis Now, Hemp Connoisseur, Oregon Retailers of Cannabis Alliance, The Cannabis Alliance, Wick & Mortar and Hemp Industries Association.

Here are eight takeaways from the RAD Expo about the ever-changing world of cannabis retail.

  1. Focus is critical

Although most of the large cannabis companies in North America are vertically integrated, they’re also becoming more and more specialized.

Just like major companies outside of cannabis, even with multiple departments that handle different verticals, the best managers are laser-focused on their side of the business. One of the reasons retailers liked attending the RAD Expo was that everything was catered toward retail: the exhibitors displayed goods and services for retail stores and dispensaries, and the speakers were experts in retail, compliance, marketing and other categories to specifically help retail businesses thrive.

  1. Technology has come to cannabis

Every year, a multitude of tech-focused companies jump into the cannabis space, bringing innovative products to help businesses operate more efficiently, draw in more customers and keep people coming back. Long gone are the days when cannabis businesses could rely on a simple spreadsheet for managing merchandise and tracking sales. Now that some cannabis businesses are handling millions of dollars a month and working with thousands of vendors, it’s increasingly important to have the right tech solution to back up their operations.

The RAD Expo gave retailers an opportunity to meet some of the leading inventory software and point-of-sale providers, business information services, kiosks for self-ordering, payment processing, compliance systems and more.

“Just in compliance alone there’s tons of technology, from the surveillance system to an access control system to your point-of-sale system to your intrusion detection system if the business is closed,” said Salient regional sales manager Blake Albertsen, who added that the cannabis sector has grown dramatically for the company in the past several years.

“The RAD Expo has been very, very good for us,” he said.

  1. The CBD biz is booming …

CBD is everywhere you look today. From a product perspective, it’s being added to just about everything you can imagine, from tinctures and topicals, to hemp pre-rolls and pet products.

The RAD Expo went from having eight CBD-related exhibitors at its second show in 2018 to 28 CBD vendors in 2019.

In addition to the sheer number of CBD exhibitors, the wide range of retailers looking for products was evident at the RAD Expo. This year’s event was attended by representatives from not just cannabis dispensaries and retail shops, but also grocery store buyers, clothing stores, CBD retailers, health and wellness stores, pet businesses and tanning salons — many of whom were looking specifically for CBD products to carry on their display shelves (which were also available at RAD!).

“The show was a hit!” said Healthy Roots Hemp owner Liz Merritt. “We sold out of everything we brought (on Thursday), talked to some great people and made some fantastic leads. So many folks remarked how they loved our packaging.”

Ely Vedar, the PR director of California-based Hakuna Supply, said she’s seen the market “open up and accept — almost crave — CBD. While the consumers are asking for and requesting CBD-infused goods and beverages, we’re facing a lot of pushback with regulations.”

Hakuna’s top-selling products are coffee and pre-rolls.

“We can’t keep it on the shelves,” she said.

  1. … and it’s also growing up

As the CBD market moves forward, it’s also maturing at the speed of light. Companies are becoming more professional. They’re refining their products. Their packaging, once dominated by the ubiquitous brown tincture bottle, now resembles mainstream consumer goods with top-notch branding and design.

Mad Ritual co-founder Jessica Rice said good products are the key to the future of CBD.

“Bad companies give the entire industry a bad name, so I think we’re starting to see a lot of those companies fall off and I think we’re going to see an elevation in the quality and standards,” Rice said.

And of course, competition has increased immensely, making it tougher to attract the attention of retailers.

Rice said she sees CBD “evolving and growing in a direction that is less cannabis and more wellness-focused.”

In the past, she often talked about CBD with people who were looking for solutions to help with chronic pain. Now she’s seeing more healthy people coming into the market to maximize recovery.

“I see it eventually replacing a lot of the traditional, over-the-counter drugs, harmful pharmaceuticals, things like that,” she said. “When we first started two years ago, we were explaining until we were blue in the face that it was not going to intoxicate you. And now we’re to a point where we can say CBD and people understand what it is.”

  1. Not your dad’s bong

Needless to say, the traditional glass bongs and pipes remain a staple of most cannabis retailers. However, the accessories category, much like the rest of the cannabis space, has exploded in recent years and innovative manufacturers have developed numerous new technologies, new styles and new materials for cannabis consumption devices. The RAD Expo had nine companies exhibiting the latest consumer accessories, as well as a number of distributors that sell a wide range of rolling papers, pipes and other ancillary products for retailers to sell to consumers.

  1. Design takes a leap forward

One of the keynote speakers of the RAD Expo was Megan Stone, the award-winning founder of High Road Design Studio. Stone has designed some of the most recognizable dispensaries in the country. She said the old adage that cannabis “sells itself” has given way to a more elevated approach to cannabis, which is helping reverse the stigma of the industry’s earlier years.

“Your dispensaries have the power to transform the world,” she told the audience of retailers listening to her speak on the second day of the event.

She suggests retailers use their space to tell brand stories, to curate products and leverage the visibility of merchandise.

“Design allows you to control certain elements of your existence,” she said.

Paul Huizar, an architect at Designwork Studios, one of the event’s exhibitors, also used the word “elevate” when it comes to retail design.

“The consumer wants to be in an environment that really elevates the product,” he said. “You put a cheap product on a cheap fixture, it’s cheap. You really have to understand retail, not just the product. Consumers are smarter than they’ve ever been and it’s harder to sell to them. So to set yourself apart or make yourself different, your retail environment becomes a sales tool for you.”

  1. Customer service is king

As cannabis shops become more common and competitive, driving sales growth becomes less about the product and more about what retailers themselves are doing. Keynote speaker Bob Phibbs, known as the Retail Doctor, focused his presentation on the best ways to move product.

One of the main points of Phibbs’ discussion was the notion that shopping, especially in the modern age, is an experience and not just transactional. Sales are not about the price or even the product.

“The goal is to connect with their hearts and heads,” he said. “The products are just the souvenirs.”

Phibbs urged the retailers in attendance to engage with customers to find commonality and to train employees to do the same. He also said retailers need to stop doing anything that is not customer-focused and to be mindful of how they address customers.

Phibbs also wanted against tripping a customer’s “idiot switch” by offering too many products or getting too far into the details. He used the example of a discussion he had at the show with a retailer who said his employees often talk to customers about terpenes — a concept Phibbs did not know and playfully called “terpians” on stage — in order to try and make a sale. According to Phibbs, a situation like that does not necessarily convey the expertise of the budtender, but could make the customer feel dumb and not want to come back to that store.

He was also clear that the store with the lowest price is not always the most successful retailer.

“There’s always someone cheaper,” he said. “If you want to race to the bottom, enjoy the ride.”

Loretta Soffe, another keynote speaker at the event and a former Nordstrom executive, talked about understanding your company’s target demographic to better serve that clientele.

“Pick one customer that is your target group that you want to grow with,” she said. “You’ve got to have a target and you’ve got to focus in on that target, knowing all the while that everyone is your customer.”

  1. Plenty of room for growth

It’s obvious that the cannabis industry will continue to grow rapidly across the country, but spending time at the RAD Expo also made it clear how much growth is still to be expected even in mature markets and for individual shops.

Many companies that opened their doors a few years ago are now looking at major renovations, expanding into new markets, refining the design of their shop, putting profits back into the business and seeking new ways to increase margins. Meanwhile, new shops are looking for everything from the ground up — the flooring, the display cases, the lighting, etc. — as well as professional services like accountants, lawyers and insurance providers. And everybody is looking for the best merchandise to sell to consumers, from cannabis and CBD products to accessories and add-on sales.

One major theme of the expo was that cannabis retail is beginning to look and operate more like traditional retail, which means dispensaries are paying more attention to best practices in inventory management, store design, customer service and retail operations to help generate more revenue and increase profits — subjects that have been the bread and butter of RAD speakers like Phibbs, Soffe (Loretta Soffe Consulting), Dick Outcalt and Pat Johnson (The Retail Owners Institute), Anne Marie Luthro (AML Insights) and Mardi Najafi (figure3) for decades.

Cannabis entrepreneurs remain thirsty for knowledge, and this level of education will continue to be a pillar of the RAD Expo as Marijuana Venture begins planning the 2020 event. Stay tuned to Marijuana Venture magazine and www.TheRADExpo.com for more information.

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