5 Best Practices for Retail Staffing in Cannabis

Finding the right employees to elevate your business can be a challenge.
5 Best Practices for Retail Staffing in Cannabis
Image credit: CasarsaGuru | Getty Images

Free Book Preview Cannabis Capital

Learn how to get your business funded in the Cannabis economy!
This story originally appeared on Marijuana Retail Report

Journalists call it “the green rush,” and for good reason -- the cannabis industry in California, already the largest legal cannabis marketplace in the world prior to January 1, now is poised to evolve into an even bigger behemoth. Jobs? Oh yes. Grows, delivery services, ad agencies, edibles manufacturers, retailers -- companies across the state are hiring like crazy. The hiring spree is even affecting other industries, like restaurants, which are losing cooks and servers to dispensaries and grows.

Retailers serve as the principal cannabis ambassadors for this rapidly expanding industry, and dispensary jobs are some of the most sought-after in the business. But retail gigs, too, pose some of the most difficult hiring challenges. Job openings arrive with plenty of resumes (sometimes, it’s an inundation). The tough part is finding the right employees. Working in a dispensary is not just another stand-behind-a-register job. Employee, team and store triumph hinge a variety of key factors.

Look For Brand Ambassadors

“We maintain a higher standard” than a lot of other retail industries, said Erika Henika, general manager of Caliva’s shop in San Jose. “We look for people who are passionate about cannabis, of course. But they also need to be sensitive to differences between people seeking cannabis for medical and recreational uses. Customer service must always come first, and this industry attracts a lot of different kinds of customers.”

All employees at retail shops should expect to interact with customers -- the jobs do not often separate customer-facing employees from those dealing with inventory or rolling joints. Personality and friendliness rank high for people in retail shops. 

Treat Your Shop Like A Fine Wine Store

Wine shops, like good dispensaries, draw a diversity of clientele -- wine geeks who want to talk varietals and vintages, people with strong opinions about likes and dislikes (“I want Syrah, and I want Northern Rhone -- definitely not anything Southern Rhone. Please help me find something great”), customers full of curiosity about different regions and styles of wine and open to advice, people seeking something to pair with tonight’s dinner, and newbies who know nothing about wine and find the whole topic a bit intimidating.

The best wine shops make everybody happy, and become part of the community’s fabric. Good dispensaries achieve the same sort of feat. It’s not easy. Customers will walk to the counter who do not know the difference between indica and sativa and have not tried cannabis for thirty years. Beside them at the same counter could be a 23-year-old architect who wants to talk in-depth about the terpene profile of Skywalker OG before she decides to plonk down money for an eighth and a 40-year-old former college football player inquiring about the pain-relieving properties of CBD. Dispensary employees should be able to pivot with ease between these customers -- making the newbie feel comfortable and at-home (and eager to return) and speaking about terpenes and CBD with the same level of fluency and savvy as the weed connoisseur or patient. 

“It’s much different from an apparel retail store, or a restaurant,” said Henika. “You don’t cook. It’s not a lot of opening shipment boxes and folding clothes. This is pure customer interaction.”

In addition, as it is for wine shops display is vital in dispensaries. That $62 bottle of Hermitage is much more tempting with soft lighting, a wood rack and a colorful description (handwritten or in a tasteful font) -- and so is the $60 rose-gold vaporizer and the $80 gram of hash. Hospitality-driven employees combined with pleasing design -- a winning wine shop one-two punch -- is a killer formula for dispensaries, too.

Train, Train, Train

You will need brand ambassadors who possess impressive people skills and who know a lot about cannabis. The first requirement is tough to train for -- either they have it, or they don’t. You will want to hire those who have it. Some of them won’t have the granular knowledge of cannabis that you desire, but that’s OK because your dispensary fully embraces training.

“Before we launch any new product our employees go through training,” said Henika. “By the time it hits the shelf, all employees should know everything about the product.”

Tap those staffers with the most knowledge about cannabis to routinely lead discussions about different topics. Invite vendors to visit the shop and talk about their products. Draft manuals that dive deep into the world of cannabis, and even quiz employees about the contents. Encourage employees to experiment with the product line, and even take notes about their experiences. Customers respond with the most enthusiasm to employees who not only understand the product, but have tried it and can talk about it, too.

Talking Taxes and Regulations

Working at a cannabis shop isn’t all about the latest flavors of high-CBD chocolates or the jaw-droppingly-awesome aroma of that new batch of Dutch Treat. It’s about exquisitely dull stuff, too: taxes and regulations. Dull, yes -- but very important. Make sure employees understand how both of these can affect the consumer experience. When the customer wonders how the box of cherry-almond chocolate pieces went from $20 to $28, the staffer should understand how taxation boosted the price -- and be able to articulate it to the puzzled retiree at the counter. When somebody believes they are entitled to a lower tax rate because they are using the cannabis for medical reasons, set them straight (gently): only people who receive state-issued medical marijuna ID cards can remove some of the tax burdens from their purchase. Employees don’t need to speak the language of accountants or lobbyists to communicate these important messages effectively -- but they do need enough to grasp the key points, the issues that come up over and over again and that have the potential to sour employee-customer relationships if handled without knowledge and tact.

Scheduling Matters

Retail shops of all stripes adjust scheduling based on foot traffic and dispensaries are no different. Friday after 4 p.m. is likely to experience a customer crush. Monday at 9:30 a.m.? Not so much. Scheduling strategies, however, revolve around more than the measure of people walking through the front door. While customer-interaction is the backbone of every dispensary, plenty of behind-the-scenes work happens every day. Think of a restaurant that’s only open for dinner. Guests don’t arrive until 5 p.m., so why fill the restaurant with employees at noon? Because of the mountain of prep work: the containers of chopped onions, peppers and garlic; the bones that have simmered all day to make stock; the pastries baked, fish filleted and ground pork and beef turned into meatballs. Dispensary employees clean, work on displays, check inventory and much more. Figuring out a schedule that makes sense takes time, but the best dispensaries eventually nail it. All triumphant businesses owe part of their success to efficiencies, and smart scheduling -- in other words, employee hours and thus expenses -- dwells at the heart of efficiency. Get this right.

More from Green Entrepreneur
Learn to be a better leader and develop successful marketing and branding strategies with Dr. Patti Fletcher's help.
Each week hear inspiring stories of business owners who have taken the cannabis challenge and are now navigating the exciting but unpredictable Green Rush.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter for winning strategies, exclusive features and all the tools you need to strike gold in the Green Rush.

Latest on Green Entrepreneur