Q&A with Nicole West

Nichole West is a busy woman.

She’s currently in the process of moving from Colorado to her home state of California to take advantage of the opportunities the world’s sixth-largest economy will bring when the state’s recreational cannabis market opens in January.

But as the former vice president of operations and business development for Sweet Leaf, a retail franchise with stores in Colorado, Oregon and Nevada and a chain-wide revenue of $65 million in 2016, West is also a highly sought-after speaker on the convention circuit, where she shares insight into the techniques that have made her and her company so successful.

She talks fast, not just because she’s a busy woman, but also because she has to in order to get through the depth of her knowledge. West routinely packs rooms with note-taking shop owners desperately trying to keep up with the pace of her speech.

But she’s also charming, engaging, self-deprecating and funny while she’s doing it, sprinkling in colorful personal anecdotes to emphasize her points.

For example, she tells a story about dating a producer whose concentrates were carried in her store. When the two stopped dating, budtenders stopped recommending his product, which they were apparently not big fans of anyway, and sales immediately dropped by 50%.

The incident reinforced for her one of the truths of the retail marijuana business: “What staff likes, staff sells,” West says.

It was also a reminder that while new products, innovations, brands and strains hit the market every day, there isn’t enough space on store shelves for everything. Decisions have to be made as to which products the stores will carry.

At Sweet Leaf, West installed a 20-question, 100-point review process that took the decision-making out of her hands, instead relying on a rubric filled out by sales associates and trusted customers who test and review each new product, judging it on multiple factors and delivering an overall score.

If the product scores an 85 or better, it gets a trial run in the shop, during which time it has to sell $300 per day, per square foot in order to maintain its shelf space. Sweet Leaf has been using the process for two years, though West says she has been developing it for about seven years, dating back to when she worked at a California dispensary and had friends who all wanted her to carry their products.

“It was really hard for me to tell them no,” she says. “I had to come up with a threshold.”

Not only does the process educate the sales people about the products, but it also proves if there is a market for the item.

“The market decides for me,” West says. “Does it sell? If it does, it stays.”

Marijuana Venture talked with West about Sweet Leaf, the review process the chain still uses and the importance of educating both budtenders and consumers.

 

Marijuana Venture: Sweet Leaf now has 11 shops open across three states. What is the company doing to be so successful?

 

Nichole West: I think the biggest thing is education. Sweet Leaf really focuses on making sure the team is educated on a high level, not only on products but on compliance and customer service as well. When you’re able to better educate our customer base, you’re better able to get them to understand what they are looking for. You’re helping them better understand the way cannabis works with the chemistry of the body, especially for people who are self-medicating. It’s about being able to tell them ‘here’s the way these products work’ and then the consumer can pick their products. At that point, the ability to sell is very easy because they all stand behind the products they carry. That’s a big part of the review process; putting people in ownership of ‘is this going to sell?’ Now you have X amount of people at every location who have tried the product and believe in it. You have people who can say ‘Yes, I used it and I love it.’

 

MV: Can you talk about the review process you use to decide what goes on your shelves?

 

NW: If a vendor asks, ‘How do I get some products in your store?’ they are sent a sample review process. Step one is to contact the manager at the location via email and request a vendor week. Every store gets up to two sample vendors per week. Once you get a window for that store, you manifest seven of any particular product to that store for the team to review (see sidebar). If you get an 85 overall, you get a trial run.

The Review Process

By Brian Beckley

Through Nichole West’s leadership, the Sweet Leaf team developed a 20-question review process that determines whether a new product is given space on store shelves. The anonymous review is completed by off-duty employees or trusted customers. It begins with questions about the reviewer’s physical characteristics (age, weight, height, etc.), when they last ate before trying the product, if they used it in conjunction with any other cannabis products and how much they consumed.

Then the reviewers answer a series of weighted questions, ranked on a scale of 1-10, that factor into the final score:

– How well do you think this product will sell at your location? (10% of score)

– How aesthetically pleasing did you find the product? (25%)

– How much did you like the taste of the product? (20%)

– How much did you enjoy the effects of this product? (25%)

– How would you rank this product compared to the current industry standard? (20%)

Products must score an 85 or better on the review before moving to a 60-day trial run on shelves.

The review also asks several more supplemental questions, including among others: Did this product have any defects? Is this product comparable to any other products in the cannabis market? Do you feel like this product’s packaging appeals to children? What is the best thing about this product? If you were selling it, what would you tell the customer? If you were speaking to the manufacturer, what would you suggest they change, if anything? How much would you be willing to pay for this product?

MV: What happens during the trial run?

West: You are placed in the most prominent place possible for visual purposes. Then there’s a 60-day run and at the end, purchase numbers are pulled. If you average $300 per day, per square foot, you are kept at that square footage. If you are doing more than that, your shelf space is upsized. If you are doing less, you are downsized based on the volume of each product specifically. If you are not even close then you are cut altogether. But it’s never happened that they didn’t come close because the review process is so strict to get on the shelves that you automatically have some supporters.

Less than 50% make it to a 60-day trial. But once you’ve made it to the shelf, it’s very difficult to not have any space afterward because if there is even one item in your product line that’s awesome, it’s kept. But after it hits the shelves, there’s only been one product I’ve removed from our repertoire after the process.

MV: You also talk about the differences in the way men and women shop. Women, for example, respond more to packaging. What other trends have you seen?

NW: For the most part, I find that women do a little more research before they come in, where I think men are more interested in trying a bunch of things, a little more willing to sample things out. The more medicinal products are a little bit higher female-purchased. Among men, we end up with a lot more people asking, ‘What’s the most potent?’

MV: What about spending habits? You mentioned that young men, 21-30, spend the most money, but that’s followed by people aged 60-70. Why is that?

NW: A lot of that has to do with being aware of your finances in general. We’ve noticed the older generation is replacing real pharmaceutical medication with cannabis. They’re replacing an opioid or something so they’ve already got an allotted budget they’re able to spend. So I feel like that is why you are able to get a higher purchase point. Plus, those tend to be more expensive items. If you are trying to replace pharmaceuticals, you’re willing to spend more money.

MV: How does a product’s packaging affect its shelf space and sales rate?

 

NW: A lot of products are trying to create a big presence so I understand the mentality of ‘We’re going to make a big, beautiful box’ but the reality is if that big, beautiful box takes up a ton of space then it’s not going to be that helpful for us. We had a honey company with a box that would fit four tubes in it, but it was just a giant box. It came with a honey wand and a whole presentation that was really cute, but realistically, how many people do I have that are going to come in and buy honey all the time? How much of a sell-through rate am I going to have on this? This product’s $14, but it should be $40 with how much space the box takes up.

Packaging is especially important when you consider things like concentrates, very small items that have a large-dollar ticket amount. If I can have more concentrates where I’m getting something like $40 per 4 square inches versus $20 per 8 square inches, not only am I taking up twice as much space with the product, but I’m making half the money on it.

 

MV: Getting back to the importance of the budtender and retail associate recommendation, you have created an advanced “sensimelier” training program for your stores. What is that about?

 

NW: It’s a training program. It’s a minimum two-year education platform. There’s 80 hours worth of class that goes into it and 285 questions. They have to score an 85 or better. They learn how the products are made, what they do, strain-specific info, cannabinoids and terpenes, historical awareness and they must have opinions on manufacturing and techniques.

Right now, Sweet Leaf has three people who are fully certified in compliance and policy, as well as all of the products on the market and they, basically, are the trainers. So just like a new wine when your sommelier sits down, tries the wine and talks to the wine reps, the sensimeliers come in when there’s a new product — and that’s after it’s passed the review and after it’s gotten on the shelves. That way, as they’re rolling out these new products, the trainers, the on-the-floor experts, are completely aware and ready for the education of that product.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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