Since the first statewide coronavirus shutdown went into place in March 2020, businesses have had to come up with creative ways to keep their customers happy while also keeping them healthy. For many, the day when mask mandates are no longer required and plexiglass barriers can come down can't come soon enough. But that's not to say every pandemic-induced innovation will be shoved out the door as soon as it's safe to do so.
For Washington's still-young cannabis industry, some of the adaptations that kept businesses open during the pandemic aren't going to just stick: They will help the industry grow going forward.
"The response to online ordering and curbside pickup was very positive and has only grown since March of last year," says Keegan McClung, marketing director at Cinder, a cannabis retailer with three Spokane area locations. "Cinder's online sales almost tripled as people switched away from shopping in-store to shopping online at the beginning of the pandemic."
Like the restaurant industry, cannabis retailers in the state pivoted to a takeout-style, curbside pickup model. Unlike restaurants, however, many of which already offered those services, cannabis retailers needed permission from the state to do so. Curbside pickup was not allowed for recreational retailers prior to Gov. Jay Inslee's statewide shutdown order. Due to the need to practice social distancing, the State Liquor and Cannabis Board quickly allowed for curbside pickup at both medical and recreational retailers. However, the board did so on a temporary basis, only for as long as the COVID-19 restrictions remain in place.
As of now, the service is still allowed. For how much longer, though, is unclear.
"I think allowing curbside pickup has been a huge success. I preferred shopping that way for my groceries pre-COVID-19," McClung says. "Sometimes I want to have a budtender nerd out with me on strains and products, but I want a grab-and-go experience after a long day of working when I want to get home. Allowing the customer to shop how they feel comfortable is vital to Cinder, so I hope that the [Liquor and Cannabis Board] enables it to stay."
Even if curbside pickup doesn't stick around, online ordering certainly will. Retailers stock hundreds of products in their stores, and not all of them can fit in the showroom-like display cases that in-store customers browse. Online, however, consumers are able to search for the exact product they're looking for with ease. Many individual retailers offer online ordering through their own websites, while larger cannabis sites like Weedmaps and Leafly allow for customers to browse menus from most of the region's retailers in one place.
For a novice user who wants to talk to a budtender to find the product right for them, online ordering won't ever match the in-person experience. But if you're looking for something specific, like an ounce of Novo Dia's Sour Tangie or a 1-gram preroll of Phat Panda's Romulan, products only available at select retailers, a quick online search will save you from making multiple calls or stops around town.
"Now you can browse our entire store on your couch," McClung says.
One service that wasn't opened up to cannabis under the shutdown order was delivery. Food, grocery and even alcohol delivery services became lifesavers for many during the pandemic. For cannabis, however, consumers had to leave the house — despite cannabis businesses being deemed essential from Day One of Inslee's "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" plan.
According to research by Cannabis Business Times, 14 states allow for some form of cannabis delivery. Washington is not among them.
"Cannabis delivery is enormous in the states where it's available," McClung says. "Washington already allows alcohol delivery, so that seems like the next step to me."
For now, delivery is an issue for the future. Retailers first have to hope the Liquor and Cannabis Board listens to their calls to keep curbside pickup once the pandemic restrictions are fully phased out. Even if the board chooses to scrap curbside pickup and steer clear of delivery going forward, retailers and consumers alike can rest assured that online ordering, if nothing else, is a positive to come out of the pandemic. ♦