The Strain Remains the Same

A few Fridays ago on my way home from work, I stopped at my usual cannabis retailer to pick up a little something for the weekend.

I like to cover my bases, so I tend to buy a sativa-leaning hybrid for day use and as-heavy-an-indica-as-I-can-get for a nightcap. I picked out a brighter strain based on price point and lab reports and headed over to the heavy shelves with plans to do the same.

That’s when I saw it, a strain of cannabis that was perfectly named, one that described almost exactly the experience I was looking for.

It was called “Cement Shoes.”

The name struck an immediate chord. It was exactly what I wanted for a Friday night after the baby went to bed: to sink to the bottom of my couch and drown in the depths of the heaviest indica I could find.

Perfect. Literally exactly what I was looking for when I walked in the door.

And yet I still left the store with a gram of a different strain tucked into my pocket…

Any Pot in  Storm

To be honest, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the strain name itself. I find them amusing, but I have no loyalties. I tend to consistently buy a few brands that I have come to trust as a quality product at a decent price, but honestly, I can’t tell you what the last few strains I purchased were called.

And it turns out I am not alone.

Strain Debate

I know there’s a lot of debate about the sativa-indica designation, even at our magazine, but as a fairly regular cannabis connoisseur, I can say without a doubt that different cultivars have different effects. It only makes sense, really, that plants that have different shapes, colors, growth cycles and cannabinoid profiles would have differing effects. And yes, I know there are a lot of mislabeled and miscategorized strains out there, but in general, the differences between sativas and indicas are as real a thing as the difference between lagers and IPAs, even if they are sometimes confused or mislabeled.

But there needs to be some sort of distinction in this industry, since different cultivars 100% provide different highs and the sativa/indica split seems as good as any. (Although I do look forward to the day when we are better at determining the differences between the two, particularly since EVERYTHING is a hybrid these days thanks to decades of underground interbreeding.)

A study this summer from High Yield Insights revealed that a full 45% of consumers cannot name a preferred strain or express no preference; however, a full 64% report that strains are important in their purchasing decision. I fall into both groups, obviously, as I have no loyalty to any given strain, but apparently a good name will have me reaching for my wallet.

“In general, cannabis users just don’t have the level of loyalty of commitment you might expect,” said High Yield Insights co-founder Mike Luce in a press release about the study. “Our insights on the customer mindset paired with test results from the scientific community underline an uncomfortable truth: Strain names are increasingly meaningless.”

Now, “meaningless” might be too strong a word. They can certainly get your attention and the right name can certainly lead to a purchase. But the point remains.

I spoke with the owner of a Washington retail chain about this. He tells me that the names seem to matter to consumers sometimes, “like a fad.” 

“If rappers or celebrities are talking about one, they do get to be very popular,” he said.

But back in the day, if you wanted to buy a bag of pot, you called a guy and you bought what he had. If he knew its name, great, but it didn’t really matter. Either you left with it or not.

Cement Shoes is the perfect example. Would I have considered it, if it were called Purple Nurple or Afghan Lemon Dream Kush OG Haze Skunk Cookies (or whatever new grab bag of pot buzzwords can be squeezed on a mylar bag)? No, probably not.

For that reason, brands now eschew strain names and just name the product after an effect, like “Focus,” “Calm” or “Create.”

But when shopping for cannabis, one can only judge a book by its cover. In Washington you cannot handle or smell the product, so the testing results and the strain name/classification are the only ways to make a choice. And I still love the shopping aspect. I still love seeing the product on the shelves and trying new things.

Trust me, if you do not live in a rec-legal state, then you have no idea how fun and surreal the shopping experience can be for an old head like myself.

So, again, it only makes sense that there is little “loyalty” among shoppers, at least to strains.

On top of that, with cultivators constantly trying new genetics and breeding strains together, there are so many on the market that they all blur together.

A quick check on Leafly shows more than 144 different strains that begin with the letter “A.”

That makes it impossible to try and keep up. And the research agrees: “The booming market, combined with the nature of the supply chain and variable product availability, creates too much distraction for users to gravitate toward a favorite,” Luce also said in the press release.

That rings true for me. When rec shops first opened in Washington, I had a few “favorite” strains, ones I asked for and sought out. But because of harvest cycles and whatnot, it was often impossible to find the same strain a week after the initial purchase. It’s gotten a little better as the industry has matured, but there is still inconsistency in the supply chain that can make it difficult to find the same cultivar in consecutive visits.

For example, I am yet to see Cement Shoes reappear on the shelf at my shop.

Which is why I, like most, tend to shop based on price and testing: they are more reliable indicators of what you are getting into, even if they are sometimes mislabeled.

“At the end of the day they’re all hybrids and most of my shoppers care about test results — what looks and tests the best,” the retail chain owner told me.

A Strain by Any Other Name

The best strain name — even one that tests high and has a decent price point, as the aforementioned Cement Shoes did — can only go so far toward making the sale.

In my case, I walked up to the counter with every intention of leaving the store with said strain, but the power of the name only went as far as the budtender checking me out. I told her my two choices, including that it was the best name I’d ever heard and I was buying it because that was the effect I was looking for. The budtender said she agreed and it was one of her favorite heavy strains in the shop, though at the same price point, she preferred another strain because it had an even stronger couch-locking effect.

“Really?” I said. “Heavier than ‘Cement Shoes?’”

She nodded, and I told her in that case I’d have to try the heavier one.

It’s another common refrain I hear from store owners: the single most important factor in any customer’s purchase is budtender recommendation. We heard it multiple times during the Successful Retailers Panel at the RAD (Retail and Dispensary) Expo this past fall in Portland, Oregon: If budtenders like a strain (or a brand or a product or whatever), it moves off the shelves.

I was the perfect example: Even the best name I had ever heard couldn’t keep me from buying the product recommended by the budtender. There’s a lesson there for retailers: Your staff really is your most important factor in moving product. Train them well and customers will tend to leave with whatever it is they are pushing.

So what was the name of the strain of heavy indica I left with that day? Abusive OG. Not bad, but not that memorable, both in name and effect.

Certainly no “Cement Shoes,” anyway.

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