Director of Operations
The cannabis industry in Canada expected 2020 to be a big year. Adult-use, non-medical legalization became a reality in 2019, and literally hundreds of stores were slated to open last year. Then March happened, and the retail economy slid to a screeching halt as the COVID-19 pandemic became our new reality. Stores immediately went into lockdown, and throughout the year various jurisdictions around North America (including my home province of Ontario) tried to juggle the need to keep the economy moving with the need to protect public health and safety.
It was in this climate of uncertainty that my company, Relm, opened its second store, in Hamilton, Ontario. Our first shop, in nearby Burlington, was one of the first legal stores in the province. We spent 2019 and 2020 perfecting our business model, ironing out the kinks and preparing for expansion over the next 18 months. But just as we were prepared to open three new stores — one in Hamilton and two in Toronto — in December 2020, COVID cases spiked and Ontario implemented an almost total lockdown. Needless to say, we got hit hard.
Once the provincial guidelines came down in late November, we knew that our stores couldn’t function normally because customers would only be allowed to pick up items that they had ordered online. All of the time and effort we had put into building out an amazing retail experience was suddenly irrelevant because we went from being a model retail operation to a distribution center overnight.
The first thing we did was delay the opening of our two Toronto stores. We knew that opening a shop that people couldn’t go into would not allow us to have a proper opening and create amazing experiences. We also knew that there was so much competition in the city that we wouldn’t stand a chance as a new entity when other local stores already had loyal customer bases. This turned out to be a pretty smart decision — we heard reports that certain stores were selling only a few hundred dollars’ worth of product every day. That’s simply not a sustainable model.
However, we decided to move ahead with the opening of our store in Hamilton. There aren’t a lot of stores in the city, meaning that any new retailer would automatically generate interest from cannabis consumers. Our hunch was correct, and we had a steady flow of click-and-collect orders from day one. And when restrictions were slightly eased, we were able to invite customers into the store to shop for the first time. This was a great experience, although we certainly would’ve liked to have been fully open with no conditions.
Opening a cannabis store during the pandemic has not been easy. However, we have made the best of a bad situation and have found innovative ways to engage with the community and attract our initial customer following. Let’s hope this pandemic ends soon so that we can open our doors all the way!
Mara Connacher is the operations manager for Relm Cannabis, one of the first legal cannabis retailers in Ontario.