What The Body Shop Taught Me About Successful Cannabis Retail

Cannabis has been described by many as the next retail renaissance, and with Ontario recently announcing a new framework for recreational cannabis including approving privately owned retail stores to open by April 1, pending legalization, licensed producers are quickly strategizing to define what the key ingredients are in crafting the ideal Canadian cannabis experience.

I’ve spent more than a decade of my career building and executing marketing strategies across luxury, specialty and mass retail, and have experienced first hand how shifts in consumer behaviours are putting increasing demands on the retail experience. The need to adapt approaches and create interactive and memorable shopping experiences is necessary to survive and thrive in this volatile and competitive environment.

Before joining the cannabis industry, in my previous role as the VP of Marketing at The Body Shop, I designed and delivered the largest CSR campaign The Body Shop has seen in over 5 years, called ‘Forever Against Animal Testing’. As I reflect back on how we increased store sales and garnered over 350,000 petition signatures to end animal testing in Canada in less than 7 months, one of the key pillars of our success was our ability to deliver a seamless and memorable retail experience.

So what will it take to build the future cannabis retail experience? Below are a few key ingredients for success.

People. Your store managers and staff are the single most important priority in building a retail experience, always more important than the hardware and fixtures. They are the ones who often have the first interaction with your customers and represent your brand to help tell your stories in a meaningful way. In addition to educating and training them on your core brand and product details, involve them as you build your company culture, inform them about new product development as you grow and expand your product mix, and provide an open forum to listen to feedback. This will result in higher levels of employee engagement, which can lead to higher motivation, productivity and performance.

One of the key successes of executing our Forever Against Animal Testing campaign was ensuring we involved our 1,000 staff members throughout the duration of our campaign by providing them with ongoing product knowledge when we launched new cruelty-free beauty products, sharing key stats related to our cause, and scheduling regular store visits as we hit key milestones in our campaign. As a result of this continued dialogue and engagement, we regularly exceeded weekly sales targets and 75% of our petition signatures came from in-store vs. online.

As you start to build your store teams, ensure that you’re thinking about key questions like, ‘Do your store managers and brand representatives reflect your customer and understand your audience? Can they speak the language that your customer understands? Are they approachable and welcoming to help you quickly establish who you are and what differentiates you from the competition?’ Taking the time to ask and answer these key questions will not only ensure you attract the right team members, but also set up the framework for your staff to better serve your customer base.

Educational Storytelling. Storytelling in retail is one of the most important factors in ensuring that you create memorable experiences and form an emotional connection with your customers.

Cannabis brands that can incorporate this into their retail experience and create a robust platform to educate both their staff and customer on their products will be more likely to build trust with customers, connect with their lifestyles, and turn them into loyal brand advocates. Given the volume of product information that customers will be looking for when walking into a cannabis store, it is important to ensure that these stories work to both relay important information and elevate how consumers experience the brand. The cannabis industry needs to bridge the gap between the prohibition-era stigma and new acceptance. The importance of education especially during the discovery phase will have a profound impact in easing and reducing the stigma that many people have about cannabis, and encouraging more widespread acceptance.

Your staff must be well-trained to speak to customers who have varying degrees of cannabis knowledge, from new cannabis users to well-versed connoisseurs, as many customers will be seeking guidance as they make their first purchases in licensed stores. Following the launch of the Forever Against Animal Testing Campaign at The Body Shop, we took the opportunity to re-educate our staff on the key ingredients of our plant-based products, and armed them with information if customers came in with basic questions like ‘What does cruelty-free mean?’ to more complex questions like understanding how we sourced our products and supported the communities from which our ingredients came. Providing this training not only enabled our store teams to speak knowledgeably and passionately about our campaign and products, but also resulted in our customers being able to make more informed decisions about their purchases and share this information with others. We also ensured that our in-store displays, store signage and email communication all supported customer education around our campaign using language that was relevant and easily understood.

Cannabis is a very tactile experience that brands can leverage to create memorable in-store experiences. Customers who decide to visit a physical store vs. shop online have the opportunity to see and smell the product as a brand representative educates them on various strain and product options. Brands need to ensure that they are leveraging this face-to-face interaction and thinking about questions like, ‘How is the product displayed to showcase quality and tell the story of how it’s sourced? How do you support customers in understanding what strain is best for them based on their objective for consumption? How do you tell customers about the various ways in which they can consume cannabis to offer them the best experience for their needs?’

The information that brands provide around ways to consume cannabis, dosage recommendations, terpene profiles and sourcing must not only be easy to understand, but also offered in various formats to appeal to customers’ preferences, including digital screens and menus, in-store signage, printed brochures and online resources to support staff in speaking to product benefits.

Loyalty. Building customer loyalty and ensuring that brands are creating personalized experiences through effective customer service are especially relevant within the cannabis industry, with so many brands emerging simultaneously. Since the Cannabis Act restricts brands from offering rewards programs, loyalty will be established and sustained through building strong customer relationships vs. a traditional points-based system. Brands need to ensure that they are building one-to-one relationships with their customers and understanding not only why they are interested in consuming cannabis, but also tailoring product recommendations to fit their needs and help them make informed purchase decisions. The customer experience continues far beyond the point of sale. Ensuring that customers know you are available to answer any questions or provide ongoing support either in person, through email, or online will make it more likely that they will continue to come back to you and increase the overall lifetime value of your customers. Maintaining a robust customer database to track purchase history will also help brands to ensure that they are meeting the needs of their customers, making appropriate recommendations and supporting their overall product experience. Through The Body Shop’s ‘Love Your Body Club’ Loyalty program, we were able to use our LYBC database to provide curated content and updates about our global petition and advocacy work to encourage brand loyalty.

Further, we used our flagship stores as spaces to build loyalty and invite members to in-store events related to our cause to encourage more frequent purchases and visits in-store, including pet adoption drives, fundraisers for local animal rescue charities, and cruelty-free make-up events. This not only increased foot traffic and drove store sales during peak periods, but also allowed customers to learn more about our campaign and develop an emotional and personal connection to our cause. In order for cannabis brands to foster education and develop loyal brand followers, leveraging retail spaces to build communities and encourage conversation through hosting seminars, events with co-branded partnerships relevant to the target customer, demos, and community meet-ups will ensure that they are creating memorable experiences and giving customers reasons to return to the store.

Convenience. The ease of online shopping has changed the role of the physical store, forcing brands to ensure that they keep up with where, when and how customers want to buy their products in order to meet demand. While cannabis brands are competing to secure storefronts within the parameters of the Cannabis Act, those that secure key locations and satisfy the needs of customers and communities in which they are situated will be more likely to become high-traffic, destination stores. Similar to shopping behaviours in the alcohol industry, the cannabis industry will likely have specific customer preferences that need to be satisfied in order to meet customer demand. For example, as part of the purchasing decision, many cannabis consumers will likely consider things like, ‘How late is my preferred location open until? Does my retailer of choice have the brands and selection I’m looking for and can I purchase on the same day that I plan to consume?’ In addition to quality of service, other factors like location, hours of operation, product availability and selection will be key considerations in the consumer decision to select one cannabis retailer over another.

In sum. There’s no question that the retail industry is undergoing tremendous amounts of change, and as licensed producers join the race to win over consumers, the retail experience will be a key measure in determining their success as market leaders. Table stakes like product offering, alone are not enough. To earn the trust of today’s customers, cannabis brands will need to build an emotional connection through mastering the right blend of people, educational storytelling, loyalty, and convenience.

Thank you to Sam Thomson and Nick Pateras for offering suggestions for improvement to an earlier draft of this article.

Marketing Executive | Transformational Leader | Personal Branding Coach | Storyteller

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