Brutal though last year was, in retrospect 2020 will be seen as a watershed moment for the legal cannabis industry. At the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, cannabis dispensaries were deemed “essential businesses,” allowing millions of Americans to retain access to their medicine (and in the process, helping cement dispensaries’ place in the retail landscape). Then, in November, voters approved legal cannabis everywhere it was on the ballot: Arizona, Montana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and South Dakota.
What do these epochal changes mean for the retail market? Behind the scenes, entrepreneurs are racing to bring new cannabis brands and products to already crowded dispensary shelves. And don’t fool yourself: The competition to get those products in front of consumers’ eyes will only increase, putting an even tighter emphasis on an essential question: How do you sell to a dispensary?
Here at Foottraffik, we’ve had the great pleasure of working with dozens of cannabis ventures at every stage in the growth process, providing digital marketing solutions like display ads, Google Ads, and SEO. We’ve even built websites for hundreds of new dispensaries! And to give you an idea of the real-life hurdles you’ll face, we’ve collected a few of the top questions posed by new cannabis entrepreneurs angling to get into the game. Some of the topics we’ll address include:
- Who is the right person to reach out to at a dispensary?
- Do I need to create a proposal for a dispensary buyer?
- I’m not in any other dispensaries; how do I get someone to trust my brand?
- What information should I provide a dispensary about my products?
- Will I need to provide free products for dispensaries to try?
- Should I share who my other stockists are?
- Is there someone I can pay to do this for me?
So, strap yourself in and we’ll run down these essential questions one by one!
How Do You Sell to a Dispensary: Who’s the right person to reach out to?
Generally, cannabis dispensaries employ a person tasked with making all the purchasing decisions. This position is generally entitled “cannabis buyer.”
At a large dispensary chain, this position may be a full-time job. However, it’s far more likely—especially at the smaller operations you’ll be soliciting first—that this role is filled once a week, or even once a month. Because buyers are typically only available to field calls or meet on specific days and hours, you need to know when that is. While you’re at it, verify that person’s job title, as well as the correct spelling and pronunciation of their name.
How do you learn all this information? Obviously, you can start with a call to the dispensary. Try not to do this at peak hours like weekends, or the end of the workday. And here’s a pro tip: Definitely don’t wait in line at the dispensary, then waste the budtender’s time by trying to engage about the best way to reach the cannabis buyer. If the dispensary is otherwise quiet, perhaps there’s an opening for you to engage in casual conversation. But keep in mind that assisting prospective vendors isn’t in the budtender’s job description.
Online, research cannabis buyers on sites such as LinkedIn. What’s more, many buyers belong to trade groups, which you can investigate using this regularly updated list. Make sure you know exactly whom you’re addressing (and when), and you’ll have cleared the first hurdle!
How Do You Sell to a Dispensary: Do I need to create a proposal for a dispensary buyer?
That depends. If you’re just starting out and approaching smaller dispensaries, you probably won’t be asked to make a formal presentation. That said, it’s essential that you know the retail landscape, and creating a proposal—even if it never leaves your desk—will go a long way towards helping you refine your pitch. Let us explain.
Creating a proposal is a great way to signal your knowledge of the retail landscape and the niche your product will fill. As we’ve written elsewhere, your product—no matter how exceptional it may be—stands a far better chance of scoring a spot on dispensary shelves if that it fulfills a currently unmet need. A proposal telegraphs your understanding of the local demographics, of the price point you’re selling at as well as the pricing structures used by the dispensary you’re pitching. It tells a cannabis buyer that you know the most important thing your—or anyone’s—product: How to sell it.
When you first make contact with the cannabis buyer, ask if he or she would like to see a formal proposal. Even if the answer is “No,” having all these answers at your fingertips is a great way to demonstrate your viability and your dedication to success.
And if the dispensary does take you on as a vendor, don’t worry: They’ll supply a contract themselves.
How Do You Sell to a Dispensary: I’m not in other dispensaries. How do I get someone to trust my brand?
Let’s face it: In the retail world, it can be hard to convince someone to take a chance on you. Sometimes, you get lucky: You may have a business partner or other associate who’s worked with the cannabis buyer before. Because so much of what we call “business” is—at the end of the day—quite personal, they might be able to vouch for your trustworthiness and viability.
But let’s say you’re a complete unknown. What can you do to signal your trustworthiness, dedication, and expertise? First things first: It’s absolutely essential that you know your product inside and out, a topic we’ll explore in greater depth in just a moment. But what about your personal presentation? Do you present as a serious, dedicated professional who believes in their product? What do your language and your style of dress signal about your competence? In a very real sense, a meeting or a conversation with a cannabis buyer is a job interview. Do everything you can to put your best foot forward.
That goes double for your online presence. A qualified cannabis buyer will most definitely research you on the web. Is your website ready for the public’s eyes? Is it informative, authoritative, and professional? Because your website will attract many more eyes than your real-world presence, at least at first, it’s essential that it showcase what’s unique, compelling, and memorable about your product.
How Do You Sell to a Dispensary: What information should I provide about my products?
How important is it to know your product? Here’s a little story:
Several years ago, a person we know sat down at a restaurant and prepared to order. Because it was a small family-owned business, the server also happened to be the owner. “Oh good!” said the diner. “Do you know if there’s any gluten in the soup of the day? I have celiac disease and can’t eat any wheat products.”
“I don’t know!” said the owner, smiling broadly. “I have no idea what the cooks put in there.”
A few months later, the restaurant was out of business.
That’s a true story, and it underscores the importance of knowing every single detail of your product, whether it’s soup or cannabis-infused brownies or live resin. When you communicate with a cannabis buyer, you should be familiar with all technical data such as cannabinoid and terpene profiles, complete nutritional information in the case of edibles, and in general, demonstrating a deep and thorough grasp of what makes your product tick.
Does that mean you should give a 15-minute presentation on your product’s technical data? It does not. Read the room, and share this information judiciously. But again—just like the proposal example we shared earlier—having all this essential information at your fingertips will go a long way towards establishing your credibility and your trustworthiness as a business worth giving valuable shelf space.
How Do You Sell to a Dispensary: Will I need to provide free products for dispensaries to try?
Except in those jurisdictions where providing samples of cannabis products is prohibited, we recommend you do so. Why? Every dispensary’s buying practices are different, of course, but it’s a safe bet that many of the products that make it to the shelf are those that the staff actually tried and liked. What’s more, those samples are a chance for you to show off your branding.
Branding is a deep and fascinating topic in its own right, so it’s one we won’t attempt to cover completely here. But seeing as your packaging is the first thing people outside your organization interact with, it’s absolutely vital that you have the look and feel of your product down before you share samples with a dispensary.
Take a moment to study some well-known cannabis brands, like Seattle’s Goodship chocolatiers, the high-tech THC Design, or folksy growers Lowell Herb Co. What do the branding and packaging communicate about these companies’ products before you even get the chance to try them?
Now imagine what the budtenders and other staff at the dispensary you’re pitching would make of your branding? Does it connote value, excitement, curiosity, or any other attributes you’d like to convey? Just as that first meeting with a cannabis buyer is a sort of job interview, having dispensary staff try your samples is a crucial step on the road towards that essential first sale. Make sure you’re ready for it.
How Do You Sell to a Dispensary: Should I share who my other stockists are?
So, you’ve made your first sale to a dispensary and you’re looking to broaden your reach. Do you tell potential buyers where else you’re selling? Absolutely. While it’s true that the cannabis industry thrives to an extent on exclusivity, transparency is an equally important value to uphold. Being upfront and honest with potential buyers goes part and parcel with being a good business partner.
Dispensaries may want to restrict access to your brand so as to limit competition. That’s natural, so long as you come to a mutually beneficial agreement (like not selling to other dispensaries within a certain geographic radius). Of course, some business theorists believe that proximity to competition actually increases sales for both parties, but not all entrepreneurs subscribe to this belief.
If a dispensary insists on exclusive access to your brand, perhaps you can explore ways to deepen the relationship and build your businesses together. Hosting in-person education events and promotions in the dispensary builds awareness and excitement, and becoming a dispensary’s “house brand” can lead to even more lucrative collaborations down the road.
How Do You Sell to a Dispensary: Is there someone I can pay to do this for me?
Let’s face it: Learning to take rejection in stride is a valuable skill. That said, some people will never get used to making cold calls. For many businesspeople, the moment they get enough traction to hire a sales rep counts as one of the happiest days of their lives. Do such positions exist in the cannabis world? Absolutely. But it’s essential that you take your time and find the right fit.
Here’s a little trick: When you’re assessing a sales rep, flip your perspective by putting yourself in the cannabis buyer’s shoes. Are they personable, professional and trustworthy? And can they learn how to represent your product as well—or better—than you can? Selling cannabis isn’t the same as selling shoes. Does the rep understand the intricacies of the cannabis industry, including all applicable compliance codes?
Remember, whomever you select is ultimately going to represent you. Don’t skimp on this step.