What drives retailers crazy?
Building relationships with retailer partners is vital for those in the wholesale cannabis business, but what is the best way to go about that and what are retail buyers sick and tired of hearing?
By Patrick Wagner
What does it take to build a good working relationship with a retail partner?
Marijuana Venture went straight to the source, asking a dozen retail managers in Washington, Colorado and Oregon about what makes their top vendors stand out in the crowded wholesale market.
Each of the three states has vastly different structures, so the rules and answers vary depending on whether vertical integration is allowed, whether cash on delivery is required, and a host of other factors.
In Washington, vertical integration is prohibited, so producers and processors are lost without building a network of retail affiliates. Meanwhile, Colorado’s system initially required vertical integration and at least 70% of each store’s product to be grown in-house, so the wholesale market has been developing more slowly.
And Oregon remains in the midst of turbulent rules that currently allow medical dispensaries to sell to the recreational market.
But regardless of location, there were several consistent themes in their answers. Professionalism is a top priority. Marketing takes two to tango — it’s done best when both the retailer and producer work together to promote each other. And there’s no need to say your cannabis is the best — let the product (and the test results, packaging, bag appeal and samples) do the talking.
For many store owners, wholesale buying is a process firmly implanted into their business structure. Scheduling meetings, reviewing strains, researching growers and, of course, sampling product are all paramount procedures toward deciding which products will line the shelves.
Marijuana Venture: Think about your top vendors. What makes them stand out from the crowd?
Nick Harsell (High Grade Organics): Their branding. Their consistency. Their passion for it. Their desire to learn and grow, knowing that they have so much more potential and seeing that there is so much more room to grow. That’s what I see in myself and so I want to work with people who are not going to settle for what they created already and just ride that out. They want to keep pushing.
Megan Summers:(Meg’s Marijuana): It’s pretty clear when a vendor has taken the time to trim and cure their stuff well, that it’s already presentable and doesn’t mean that I take it and then have to trim it and then put it on the shelf after I lose weight.
Gareth Kautz (High End Market Place): For us, our store specifically, it’s all quality. We have the best product we can find. We look for people we can work with and agree on the best pricing. For us, it’s the best product and the best price.
Brad Moss (Beaver Bowls): High test results seem to sell. People with a unique product, high test results and a fair price.
Matt Walstatter (Pure Green): First of all, a quality product. Second of all, a professional approach — that’s a big differentiator for me. There’s a lot of quality product out there, but I’m looking for someone who really cares about what they’re doing, those who brand and market their product. By marketing, that gives me a little support. It doesn’t just rely on me to sell their product for them.
I’m looking for somebody who can show up to appointments on time and who can consistently deliver a consistent product. If I buy a pound from you and it sells well, then I need to buy another pound from you, otherwise I’ve got disappointed customers.
I work with people that I’ve known for 10-15 years or people that I just hit it off with. I’m looking for a long-term relationship. I want to be able to build our businesses together. I buy opportunistically as well. I’m not going to say no to something nice. But at the same time, I turn down a lot more product than I take into the store. I am fortunate in that regard, that I can be pretty picky about it.
Ryan Cooper (The Happy Crop Shoppe): My top vendors are all regional to me. A lot of them I knew from the medical marijuana industry. Whatever the demand is, I go out and find it.
Amy Dalluge (The Green Seed): The vendors I choose to deal with are individuals who not only display a passion for the marijuana industry but they understand and show a great awareness toward the street market value, which is our biggest competitor.
Nyah Keliy (Growing ReLeaf): Having consistent quality products. Having well-trimmed, nice-looking buds and having lab results to back it up. It’s presentation, potency and smokability. Ideally, we always sample everything first before we put it on a shelf. Presentation alone can fool you. Numbers alone can fool you.
Chris McAboy (The Novel Tree): To truly stand out requires the trifecta of budtender samples, product information and sales support. Bag appeal is huge, but the number one biggest factor is budtender buy-in. When budtenders relate their direct positive experiences with your product to the customer, magic happens.
Alec Meikle (American Mary): Packaging, price and quality. I think a pretty even distribution between the three.
Tim Cullen (Colorado Harvest Company): I’d say most of it is from former relationships that we’ve had with companies that we know are good companies and good people. I’ve never bought wholesale from anyone because I thought they had a great ad or I heard they had some (product) available.
It’s always been through personal relationships with owners. We look in different places for different product. So if we’re looking for medical wholesale, we’re looking outside of Denver, because the market is better away from Denver. Colorado Springs only has medical, so there’s more selection for medical wholesale. Whereas if we need recreational product, we can’t look in Colorado Springs because they don’t have it. It’s always prior relationships.
Marijuana Venture: What elements are most important when considering whether to carry a grower’s products?
Nyah Keliy: If they are in it for a quick buck or if they are looking for a long-term relationship.
Alec Meikle: If one of those three things (packaging, quality, price) were going to stand out on its own it would probably be quality. You can stand high pricing or packaging because it’s going to hit a ceiling. You could have really good branding that could support the more mediocre weed. From a retail perspective, there are a few things that drive sales that maybe shouldn’t be as big of factors as they are, such as packaging and percentages.
Nick Harsell: It has a lot to do with the character of the person. Their personality. How they talk about their own product. Their personal beliefs and how they treat their own bodies and the people around them, for me, is how they treat those plants. It’s about creating a relationship. Are they in it just for the money or is there something more?
Ryan Cooper: Having a professional approach. Come in with price sheets. The first initial meeting is huge, and of course, whether (sales reps bring) visual or personal samples.
Matt Walstatter: First of all, we’re going to sample their product. At least one or two people in our shop are going to give it a try before we buy it. How’s the product? How’s the person who’s bringing the product? How are they coming across? How are they carrying themselves? Are they showing me that professionalism?
I mentioned marketing before, it’s a really attractive thing to me. If someone can come into my shop and say, ‘I have a great product and it’s at a fair price and I’ve got 5,000 Instagram followers and 10,000 on Facebook. These people will come to your store looking for my product as soon as I tell them it’s here,’ that’s a big bonus to me.
Amy Dalluge: When the consumer walks into the retail store and a case is visually lit up with colors or visual stimulation of branding, that is the very first place they start their shopping experience. The packaging should grab the consumer in such a way that it lets the consumer have some sort of indication as to the product contained inside. Also genetics are of great importance. I like to work with businesses that are going above and beyond with in-house strain creations and who are striving to offer to the industry an experience that no one else has gifted. This market is flooded with repetition of strains.
Tim Cullen: It’s got to have shelf appeal. That’s the bottom line for retail. Honestly, when I am buying wholesale, I’m not trying to make any money on it. I am only buying wholesale because I need more selection on the shelves. If we take down a harvest and it’s only 10 strains, we can’t only have 10 strains on my shelves. I need to have 20 strains. So I am looking for selection.
I want variety and I want it to look good. But I am just trying to make my money back on that product, it’s not part of my business plan to really crush it on the wholesale. And usually, with where the market is and with the deals that the store will advertise, breaking even is what I am looking to do on my wholesale. It’s sort of a different approach than what I think other people take with wholesale purchases.
Shawn Sortland (Clear Choice Cannabis): I make sure that it’s trimmed correctly and it has a good eye-appeal to it.
Megan Summers: It has to be priced so I can make sure that I can make appropriate profit margins off of it. It also depends on what the potency is, because I have such a good selection that I only take stuff that is over 20% (THC) unless it is a high-CBD strain.
Marijuana Venture: As a buyer, what are some of your pet peeves about how people and businesses go about selling their products to dispensaries and retail stores?
Tim Cullen: At the beginning of this whole process, there would be more guys with backpacks in the store trying to sell to us than there were customers in the store trying to buy. That’s no longer the case. All sales in Colorado have to be from a licensed seller to a licensed seller. That was really a huge blow to the caregiver market and probably the black market.
It’s always the same thing, everyone is trying to put their best face forward. You talk to them on the phone and they’ll tell you about the crazy fire they have for a great deal, then you go down and find out that the great deal is because it’s not crazy fire, it’s larfy crap. I’m never willing to sacrifice quality for price. I feel like our customers think like that too.
Nyah Keliy: Definitely when they (wholesalers) try to talk it up without any experience or lab results to back it up. We had a guy bring in the most phenomenal looking bud I’ve ever seen. It looked too good to be true and it was too good to be true. It was like a bowl of Fruity Pebbles. It had all these different colors. He wanted to charge $3 more than anything we’ve ever sold before, and it didn’t have lab tests. After this we formed a policy that everything needs to come in with lab tests. We sampled it and it was not only the worst, but I don’t know if it was even cannabis. It had no effect. I didn’t think it was cannabis from smoking it. Then I was thinking, what did he do to this bud to make it so colorful? What did I just ingest into my body?
Nick Harsell: Just being unprofessional. Not having any type of social media. Arrogance, throwing ego in it. When you say that your product is the best. There is no product that you can say is the best, because it’s based on your perspective.
Megan Summers: My number one pet peeve is not having it trimmed well. It’s presentation. If you’re coming in and you’re trying to sell product, it should be presented well. It should look nice. When you’re coming to a dispensary you should have your top-quality bud. Not the bottom of the barrel that needs to be re-trimmed.
Gareth Kautz: For us, talking about testing without a sample. Numbers on your bag don’t sell your weed to me. We buy weed off of quality, we don’t buy it off the label on the back. We aren’t particularly happy with over-pricing weed.
It’s kind of annoying to have a salesperson come in and tell me that we have to go to the growers to tell me about this. We want to go to your grower and experience, but he should at least know what nutrients they are using, or if they are soil or hydro, the basics.
Ryan Cooper: Showing up unannounced with product that is illegal. People have just shown up on the weekends, when my buying people aren’t here.
Amy Dalluge: I turn away from businesses that set pricing on THC levels. Some plants naturally don’t grow with high THC levels and I feel that it has been a marketing ploy to get more money out of the consumers based on THC level. Also increasing margins on high-CBD levels. As the medical market becomes integrated with the recreational market, people who need the high-CBD product will need to purchase it at a lesser value. Currently almost every business offering CBD product is doing so at an increased cost over THC product. I have also been finding it hard to get a unit value out of larger increments such as half ounce and one ounce units. Most businesses are setting prices per gram, making it hard for the consumer to purchase larger volumes at reasonable rates without the retailer taking the biggest break.
Matt Walstatter: Lack of professionalism. There’s a lot of people that have come from a mentality that weed sells itself and they think, ‘I’ve got great stuff so someone is going to buy it.’ That’s not really how it works anymore. There’s a lot of quality cannabis on the market.
That’s the baseline and I’m looking for that next level. Those things that I was talking about. You show up on time. Is your product consistent quality over and over? Can you deliver what I need and meet your deadline? Do you live up to your obligations? When people don’t do that it drives me crazy.
I had a vendor that I bought one strain from, he was a real specialist. He grew that strain incredibly well. It was our number one or two top-selling strain on any given month. Then one day he just stopped returning my phone calls and fell off the planet. I found out later that he had signed an exclusive deal with a dispensary up the road. I have no problem with that. More power to him. But returning my phone call would’ve been nice.
Shawn Sortland: The spiel when they come in. If the first comments I get from them are about how awesome and how tasty and how good the bud is, that’s always a red flag for me. When people come in and want the products to speak for themselves, I get more of an interest. The sales pitches that people give like a salesman, I pick up on that and that draws me away.
Chris McAboy: Opening sales pitches with claims about what our customers are demanding would be like us going into your grow unannounced and telling you that your lights are spaced too far apart by a few inches.
Brad Moss: There are a bunch of people who just bring a bunch of crap in and think that it’s worth something. Other people are just sharks and they come to rip you off. A lot of people just drop in. Out of all the total drop-ins, I don’t know if that has ever worked out.
What would you suggest as a way for wholesalers to develop better relationships with dispensaries and retail partners?
Amy Dalluge: Take the time to truly understand your business associates. Get to know what their goals and ambitions are toward what they envision from the marijuana industry. Unite with each other in making sure you understand what it takes to stimulate the market from moment to moment in this newly developing industry. There are so many factors involved in the marijuana movement on every level — environment, economics, etc.
Nick Harsell: Being really transparent. Definitely allowing employees or the dispensary owner to tour their processing facility or their grow facility.
Matt Walstatter: At risk of sounding repetitive, I’m back to professionalism. Show up on time. Be prepared. Bringing samples is a really big one. We’re not going to take anything into the shop without trying it first — that’s number one. If you just bring me a lab sheet or a product list, then that’s just going to get lost. The other thing is to find out a shop’s procedure and follow it. Find out who the person to talk to is. Find out if the store prefers you to walk in or set an appointment. Find out if there are specific vending hours or if it’s just open to everybody. If I don’t know you, if you haven’t come to me through an introduction or a long-standing relationship, then there is pretty much no chance that I am going to buy your product when you first walk in. Be prepared to come back a couple of times. That’s how you build those relationships.
Nyah Keliy:Try to make it easy on the dispensary. It’s a much more fast-paced and hectic environment than a grow. Anything that you could take that would make it easier on the dispensary. Having it already tested takes out a lot of variables. Come in with samples and tests.
Tim Cullen: I think for a while in Colorado there was this attitude amongst growers — and I still see it here and there — that everything they do is the best. They’re the best. Their product is the best. They’re the best at it. People have gotten away from that a little bit, because every retail store that’s still around right now, they grow good cannabis. You’re not around anymore if you don’t have that part figured out.
So for the most part the quality is there. Now, because of the potency testing, the contaminate testing, some places are doing pesticide testing — you don’t have to talk that much.
The labels really tell you what it is and how good it is. So it’s not so much word of mouth as it is ‘put up or shut up.’ What is your potency? Do you have fire or not?
You don’t have to ask them, you can just read it. Just being real about it and honest about what people are looking for. Honestly there’s a market for everything, so if you don’t have great quality product on wholesale, it’s fine to say that. The price just has to reflect it. You can’t sell your 10% THC for top value no matter what it looks like. You just have to be honest about what you actually have and what the market bears. If you are, then people will continue to deal with you. But if you walk around with attitude and with low numbers tagged to your bags and think that you’ll get top dollar, you’re not. There’s too much selection out there. People have gotten more real about it.
Alec Meikle: I think good business is always going to be a great factor in the quality of a relationship. Constantly working to lower their cost structure, to be able to provide good product, good pricing. Some producers have done a good job at establishing their own social media presence and being able to bring that into the equation and drive business to your stores is a huge plus.
Shawn Sortland: Let the product speak for itself. Don’t try to upsell. Don’t try to explain how beautiful the product is, how tasty, how awesome. Those are red flags for me, because that shows me that they are trying to improve their product as it’s in front of me. I’d say that 95% of people who talk up their product, there is usually a problem with the flush, the burn or a high nitrogen level.
Chris McAboy: Show respect and be prepared to listen. Research relationship-based sales if you’ve never done sales or come from a hard-closing background. Ordering any product on the spot without doing our quality control checks first would be a great injustice to our guests because they trust our process. No today doesn’t mean no forever … so don’t be scared to keep us updated.
Megan Summers:: I think more vendors need to be open to consignment. Especially because it’s such a new industry. Recreational has only been out for a month now (as of this interview); we’re still figuring out what the trends are and what the recreational customer looks like. So it would be nice if more vendors would be open to full consignment, even half consignment, just to see how their product sells. I know a lot of retailers run into problems where they buy product and they are sitting on it for months and months. All that time it’s getting drier and harder to sell.
Gareth Kautz: Make sure to know what their buyers want, what they’re looking for, what they already have on their shelf. For instance, Blue Dream. If we have Blue Dream then you have to have the best Blue Dream or you have to have something else. Pay a little attention to the market, who’s buying, who’s there and what they already have on the shelf and what their price ranges are. You can probably do a pretty good backwards analysis of what they would like before you get to their store.