Dispensary Success: Essential Standard Operating Procedures For A Changing Market

Years in the cannabis industry have shown me how adaptable this community is and how important it is to maintain a connection between budtenders, customers, and the cannabis they consume. As the world moves from the illicit market to the legal market, the nature of the communication between grower and consumer has changed. Today, I want to share three elements that should become standard for selling cannabis flower in all dispensaries. 

How Dispensaries Have Adapted To The Legal Marketplace

When medical cannabis started in California, there were few regulations and cannabis was sold with customers able to see, smell, and inspect the cannabis they were buying. Dispensary customers were typically able to interact closely with the cannabis flower they were considering purchasing. Consumers could smell and handle the bud to evaluate its quality and decide instinctively if a cultivar appealed to them. This was a continuation of the way consumers bought in the illicit market. But with new state-by-state regulations, restricting how cannabis can be sold, consumers are rarely able to interact meaningfully with flower before purchase. Instead, they are faced with making a buying decision based on labels, testing information, and budtender recommendations.

This disconnects customers from the cannabis they purchase, and presents a problem. Historically, cannabis consumers have relied on scent to tell them if they will enjoy a cultivar. Because this is no longer an option, dispensaries must develop new ways to label their flower to communicate all relevant information and remain compliant with state regulations — which generally restrict the consumer's ability to inspect and smell the flower they are buying. 

Recent studies have confirmed aroma is the most important factor in selecting the best cannabis for each consumer. We need to find ways, through our labeling, to give consumers insight into the aromas they are selecting.

3 Essential Product Labeling SOPs For Dispensary Success

Dispensaries should highlight three key categories to ensure streamlined, positive customer experiences for choosing cannabis flower. 

1. THC content displayed in an easy to way to establish the expected intensity of the THC impact. 

2. Aroma profiles based on genetics that put the consumer into the shoes of the grower, allowing them to explore cannabis based on aromas and the genetics that create those aromas. 

3. Dominant Terpenes. While cannabis contains 100’s of terpenes, there are only a small number whose effects have been identified, and can provide the consumer with another path of discovery.

1. Present Dispensary Cannabis THC Levels on a Simple Scale

Customers need to know the cannabinoid levels in the products they consume, but THC shouldn’t be presented as just a percentage. Instead, dispensaries should represent THC on a simple low, medium, and high scale, understanding that all products will produce a varied high. THC categories must also be easy for customers to identify and understand to steer consumers away from thinking these THC percentages tell the whole story. In fact, THC testing is not exact. In each bud, percentages range. Each lab uses different equipment and calibrations for their testing, which gives only a rough idea of the purchased flower’s THC content.

To guide consumers through this level of uncertainty, my company divides our products into “easy” (<21% THC), “advanced” (21-26% THC), and “expert” (26%+ THC) THC levels. For fun, we use the same symbols as ski slope ratings: “easy” is represented by a green circle, “advanced” is a blue square, and “expert” is a black diamond. The iconography makes the levels easily identifiable and illustrates that they’re all psychoactive cannabis products that will simply provide different experiences. High THC (expert) levels will give consumers a strong and fast kick into the psychoactive impacts, which can be uncomfortable for many casual users. Contrastingly, the lower levels (easy) will still deliver psychoactive effects, but they will come on slower and be moderated by the “entourage” effects of other cannabinoids and terpenes in the flower. A balanced effect can be much more appealing to new or infrequent consumers. With customers 65 years and over asthe fastest growing age group for dispensaries, we must recognize that most of these consumers don’t want or enjoy the strong and fast kick of high-THC cannabis.

2. Emphasize Easy-to-Understand Aromas on Dispensary Shelves

Studies have shown that scent is critical to individual enjoyment of cannabis cultivars. Because new regulations keep dispensary customers from interacting with the flower, retailers must devise another way to communicate this information that is both accurate and uncomplicated. 

Based on input from seasoned growers and my family’s experience working in the cannabis industry, my company has started to use six basic cannabis aroma profiles: cheese, dessert, fruit, gas, pine, and purple. These aroma profiles are familiar to cannabis growers all over the world. These essential scent groups are closely related to cannabis genetics and are easy for consumers to connect to. Our aroma classification also creates an opportunity for consumers to explore cannabis genetics based on aroma profiles to discover which types of flower are most enjoyable for them. Much like our icons for THC levels, we also use color-coded symbols to denote aroma families and make it simple for customers to identify products they will like. 

3.Ensure Budtenders and Customers Know the Dominant Terpenes

Terpenes are another essential piece of the puzzle when describing cannabis cultivars and helping consumers identify what they will like. Customers and dispensaries only need to focus on the most prominent terpenes — those with scientifically proven impacts and effects. If dominant terpenes are listed prominently, customers can discover patterns in the types of cannabis they enjoy and learn how to identify new cultivars that are also right for them. 

My company emphasizes the seven most prevalent terpenes: caryophyllene, humulene, limonene, pinene, myrcene, linalool, and terpinolene. This is because we have scientific data on their effects. Over time, more terpenes (and cannabinoids) will be better researched and understood and we will adjust our information based on those findings in the future. For now, we list these seven primary terpenes on all the cultivars we sell and educate our customers on their importance, too. 

Improve The Modern Dispensary Experience In 2024 And Beyond

As regulations change, dispensaries must adapt and find new operating procedures to help ensure their customers have great experiences and remain loyal despite a tumultuous marketplace. Moving away from the binary approach to THC — high is good, lower is bad — is critical. All growers know that some of their best, most-enjoyable flower cultivars are not necessarily high THC testing.

Making simple THC scales, aroma categories, and key terpenes a standard feature on dispensary packaging will help your dispensary retain and attract customers, as well as provide them with an enjoyable and meaningful way to choose cannabis flower. Overall, this will improve the cannabis industry by keeping dispensaries approachable and understandable for consumers. I have been so impressed with how the cannabis industry — and the cannabis community — have adapted to strict state regulations, and I look forward to seeing more dispensaries make these simplified practices standard.

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