With six stores now open in Ontario, ShinyBud has set the stage for an ambitious expansion plan that could make the family owned business one of the top cannabis retail chains in Canada — assuming government regulators and the coronavirus pandemic don’t stand in the way of progress.
If all goes as planned, the company will open an average of two new stores per month in 2021, bringing its total to 30 shops in Canada’s most populated province. But possible delays by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) are the main obstacles that remain, says ShinyBud director and co-founder Alex Dass.
“When you’re ready to go, you’re just at the mercy of the AGCO,” she says. “The timing restrictions are completely out of our hands, so that’s probably the biggest challenge. We knew it was going to be a pretty aggressive rollout, but we’re quite comfortable with building and finding locations.”
Marijuana Venture: What does the roadmap look like for scaling up the business and opening additional locations beyond that?
Alex Dass: We opened up in February of last year (2020), starting in Toronto, and right now we’re opening our seventh store, in Hamilton.
For the next year, we have a pretty aggressive rollout planned. We’re going to try to open up 30 stores by the end of 2021 and still work on finding and developing new stores as well. We’re allowed up to 75 locations and ideally we’d like to do that.
MV: What’s been the biggest challenge so far in the year you’ve been open?
AD: The biggest challenge, because we opened up in February, was really COVID. We only had one month of pre-COVID retail, so learning to navigate that was a challenge. That’s the biggest and most unexpected thing that we could have happen in our retail business.
MV: And then all your subsequent store openings have been right in the midst of the pandemic, right?
AD: That’s right, so our biggest focus throughout COVID has obviously been the need to do everything very safely and follow government regulations and guidelines. But we didn’t want to stop, so we had to slow down a little bit in order to meet the regulations and guidelines that were given from the government. It was definitely an interesting experience, especially with our second and third store that opened.
And now it’s like a normal day, which is funny.
MV: Once the pandemic is over, do you think there will be some relearning as you adjust to regular retail without the need for social distancing and other safety measures?
AD: Absolutely. We built all of our stores so that the environment was tailored for our guests, so not being able to showcase that or have our guests experience that was definitely a disadvantage for us.
MV: In general, how has business gone in the year that ShinyBud has been operating?
AD: Business is good. We can’t complain. I can only speak for ourselves, but we had that little bit of a blip right before the government was going to shut down cannabis retailers, and now it’s kind of stabilized.
Right now, on the business side of things, it’s really just a waiting game. We’re very restricted in terms of the timeline. The AGCO allocates and grants the licenses, and there’s a long waiting list. We have stores that are in position right now that will not be able to get licensed until mid-2021.
That’s probably the biggest challenge for most, if not all, multi-store retailers; you’re sitting and waiting.
MV: What is the market like in terms of competition right now?
AD: I’m a very strong believer that competition just brings more customers. When you have other local cannabis retailers, at least you know that people are already coming through and looking for their legal cannabis. But in terms of competition, because the rollout is so slow with the government, you’re not really affected by it for at least three to six months, maybe even 12 months in some locations.
Our most saturated market would probably be Toronto, where we have 15-plus stores around us. But we’re not feeling it too much. There’s a lot more customers, so it just depends on where they’re situated geographically.
MV: How have you seen the Canadian market and consumers in general evolve since you opened your first shop?
AD: I’m going to say that product knowledge is becoming super important with our customers, especially with new products and formats coming available on a weekly basis. It’s really become more apparent that we need to curate a better selection and simplify our choices for our customers.
MV: When retail stores first opened in Canada, it seemed like the legal market struggled to bring in customers from the unlicensed or legacy market. Do you see those customers moving more toward the legal spectrum of the market?
AD: I do think that consumers are giving us more of a chance now. I know initially there was a lot of talk about quality not being the same and price points not being the same. We’ve seen a lot of licensed producers that have stepped up their game, so they’re able to offer a wide variety to our customers and higher THC at a lower price point, and that way we can help with combating the illegal market.
MV: You talked a little bit about creating and developing the ShinyBud brand. What does that brand mean to you?
AD: In training our teams, we had to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes. That was one of our biggest points. We didn’t want to push our experiences on our guests there, but we wanted to listen to them and try to find out what experience they were looking to achieve that day.
We need to give everybody that time to ask their questions and give them that special attention that they deserve, and that helps build trust. The last thing we want to do is make our guests feel like they’re bothering us. It might take a little bit longer with one guest and a little less time with another, but we need to give everybody that personalized attention.
MV: What else have you learned about your customers and how has that influenced your decisions as you continue to open up new shops and refine operations at existing stores?
AD: Trust is earned, and we need to recognize that we have to build that trust with the customers. So that means constantly growing and evolving, from one store to the next, and just constantly developing those relationships.
MV: Are you looking at opportunities outside of Canada?
AD: Absolutely. There are a couple of states that have piqued our interest, and our cannabis compliance team is looking into it. It’s too early to say where, but we’d absolutely like to get into the States.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.