Since early 2020, the pandemic has shined a spotlight on the global supply chain and its shortcomings. Supply and demand have changed so much and so quickly that it has fostered shortages and delays for many of the world’s goods.
Much of this crisis is due to manufacturing plants in countries like China working at half-capacity or being forced to shut down to curtail the pandemic. A lot of those shortages can also be blamed on companies with a lack of foresight, choosing to lower costs with thin inventories rather than keeping warehouses full.
The global supply chain crisis has impacted nearly every market on earth that relies on international shipping. Everything from clothing and turkeys to cars and computer chips is in short supply, causing prices and wait times to increase.
The cannabis industry is no exception; the supply chain crisis very much so impacts cannabis products getting to consumers. According to John Hartsell, CEO & co-founder of DIZPOT, a cannabis packaging distributor, the worst, when it comes to the supply chain affecting the cannabis market, may still be on its way. “Supply chain issues will continue to be challenging and may even become more challenging for cannabis companies over the next several months due to the holiday season coming up with many packages coming for Christmas, Hanukkah and other holidays,” says Hartsell. Many of those gifts arriving during the holidays are coming from overseas, which further exacerbates any current supply chain backlogs.
John Hartsell will be speaking on this topic and more at the Cannabis Packaging Virtual Conference on December 1. Click here to learn more.Adding to those issues even more is the Chinese New Year coming on February 1, 2022. “The Chinese New Year can often be a three-week downtime for manufacturing in China, causing even more significant delays,” says Hartsell. “Ultimately, these issues are only a problem for organizations that are incapable of planning a logistical timeline that meets demand.”
So how can cannabis companies get ahead of supply chain planning? Hartsell says they are working with customers to establish timelines up to eighteen months out to prevent any disruptions. “We need to stay hyper-focused on logistics, moving freight all over the world, to prevent issues that result from shortsightedness.”
With new markets coming online and legacy cannabis markets expanding, the cannabis supply chain is certainly maturing and this crisis may be kicking things into high gear. In states on the West Coast, distribution channels have expanded, rules have allowed for curbside pickup and delivery and a lot more ancillary businesses are supporting a thriving market.
Still though, the cannabis supply chain falls short in other areas, namely interstate commerce, with the federal government to blame for that. Hartsell expects to see some more interstate commerce in the coming years, and with that comes a much more sophisticated supply chain. He says using logistics software to manage supplies will be the key to continued success.
As an experiential marketer that works with a lot of vice-oriented brands, I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the rise of spirits in the US – a history marked by ingenuity in the face of heavy restrictions, clashing social norms, crime and political ideals. Since then, those same qualities have emerged in the story of cannabis and how, against all odds, it has recently begun to push its way into the mainstream. But on the path to legalization, cannabis can also learn a lot from the spirits industry about what not to do.
For example, when laws governing the spirits industry were written in the post-Prohibition 1930s, the federal government wanted to create an equitable landscape. So, they created a 3-tier system – manufacturers or importers must sell to wholesalers, wholesalers must then sell to retailers and retailers sell to us. They figured that keeping manufacturing interests separate from wholesale and retail interests would keep any large company from owning an entire supply chain, muscling out smaller competitors.
In theory, it’s not a bad idea. Imagine the consequences of massive companies like Diageo or AB InBev using their money to pay bars and liquor stores to only stock their brands and not competitors. Add on the Tied House Laws, which basically says an entity in one of the three categories cannot have an ownership stake in any of the others, and you get a seemingly even-handed marketplace.
In truth, it makes it almost impossible to be disruptive or for new brands to break through. Other industries have innovated by cutting out the middleman and selling direct-to-consumer – something that simply cannot happen in alcohol (minus the wineries and distilleries that can sell direct out of their tasting rooms). Also, now distributors are so consolidated that there are only one or two big distribution companies in each state. So, as a company trying to bring a new product to market, you have to get into one of these highly selective and competitive distributors if you are going to be successful – a challenging ask for a small, independent brand.
Now, imagine that same challenge coming to the cannabis space. With legalization around the corner, the adult use (as opposed to medical use) cannabis industry could easily look like alcohol in the rules that will be set up.
Right now, adult use manufacturers can sell their products to dispensaries directly. Some use a distributor, but there is no nationwide mandate to – which is probably for the best. If a distributor isn’t a requirement, it forces brands to offer something new to differentiate themselves. It will spark innovation, rather than add an extra profit margin that will get rolled into the final price – a price that is already higher than it should be due to the murky federal legal status. Adding complexity and cost will only make it harder to compete with the illicit market. For the industry to grow, costs for illicit cannabis can’t be lower than its legal counterpart.
Of course, we are in the nascent stages of legalization here and we’ve come a long way culturally and technologically since the 30s. But remember, the rules governing alcohol were written nearly 100 years ago along with the passage of the 21st amendment repealing prohibition. Startlingly, those laws haven’t changed that much since they were written, so any mistakes made now in dealing with the cannabis industry could last for a long time.
A new way forward
What the cannabis industry needs is a new model for the adult use/recreational space, keeping some of what exists in the alcohol industry but without ever mandating use of a distributor – the middle tier. This would mean keeping Tied House Laws in place and applying them to cannabis so that a manufacturer could never hold an interest in a retailer, while still allowing them to sell directly to dispensaries and to consumers. Currently, some states allow for vertical integration, which would change under Tied House Laws.
This should be pretty simple, since most states are already separating licenses by type of activity (manufacturer, retailer, etc.) and it would promote competition while bringing the widest array of products possible to each consumer. Also, it would prevent any behemoths from squeezing out the up and comers.
Of course, some retail license allowances could be considered on a case-by-case basis. For example, I would carve out an exception that growers/manufacturers could sell direct to consumers through a single “tasting room” at their brand home. This is similar to the operations of microbreweries, distilleries and wineries. It would encourage education for consumers, and provide great opportunities for brands to show why their products are better or unique.
Given the technology and logistics solutions available to businesses in a 21st century economy, mandated distributors create a sometimes-unnecessary barrier to an already efficient supply chain. If mandated, prices will inflate to cover added margin, thus making it harder to bring consumers over from the legacy market to the legal one. I’m not against the idea of a distributor – they can add tremendous value, but the mandate would seriously curtail industry growth.
Direct-to-retail and direct-to-consumer sales are necessary for the economic health and growth of the industry. Without this, using alcohol as a cautionary tale, at some point the middle tier cannabis brands will inevitably begin to wield an outsized amount of power. We are living at a time where innovation is going to be the key to explosive growth in the cannabis industry, so it’s important to do everything possible to let the market find its way without falling into a century-old trap.
No business is perfect, especially when humans are part of the equation. But, how do you tackle fixing quality issues as they arise? The goal of this article is to shed some light on the value of a CAPA program and why many states are making them mandatory for cannabis businesses.
Let’s consider the following situations:
Analytical lab results for a production batch test above the limit for a banned pesticide or microbial contamination
You open a case of tincture bottles and some are broken
A customer returns a vape pen because it is leaking or ‘just doesn’t work’
Document the issue?
Perform some sort of an investigation, asking questions of the people involved?
Ask for a retest? Then, if the test comes back positive, move on?
Let’s go through each one of these and understand why the suboptimal answer could be costing your business money:
You don’t document the issue
I hear excuses for skipping on documentation all the time.
“It’s not a big deal”
“It was a one off”
“The glasses probably broke in transit”
“They are cheap and easily replaceable”
“It’s not worth the time”
In the situation of a couple of broken bottles in a shipment, what if it was the seventh time in the last two months? If you haven’t been documenting and tracking the issue, you have no way of knowing if it was a single occurrence. Remember when you were surprised that your filling team did not have enough bottles? Those broken bottles add up. Without documenting the incident, you will never know if it was truly a one-time mistake or the sign of a deeper issue. The reality is, it could be sloppy handling on the production line, issues with the shipper or even a sign of poor quality coming from the supplier.
Have you ever compared the number of fills vs the number of bottles ordered? How much money have you already lost due to those broken bottles adding up? Do you have the ability to answer this question?
You perform an investigation
Let’s say a customer returns a leaky vape pen. You perform an investigation by asking the production workers what they think went wrong. They say that it’s very difficult to get the seal for the cartridge into place. Their supervisor tells them to try harder, refunds the customer and moves on. But, why is it difficult to get the seal into place? Is it a design flaw? Should a special tool be used to assemble the cartridge properly? Without getting to the root cause of why the seals are leading to leaking cartridges, you are doomed to have repeat issues. Numerous studies have found that less than one in twenty dissatisfied customers will complain, and that approximately one in ten will simply leave for another brand or provider. How much is this unresolved issue truly costing your business?
Asking for a retest and if it passes, releasing the product and moving on.
Suppose a major producer of cereal received test results for its most popular cereal that were positive for levels of heavy metals that research has shown to be linked to cancer or developmental issues in children. Now, suppose the company stated that it was an isolated incident and a retest showed that the product met acceptable limits. Further investigation showed no paperwork, save for a couple of emails and a phone call between the lab and the producer. Would that give you peace of mind? This is known as “testing into compliance” and was the subject of a landmark lawsuit in 1993 that Barr Laboratories lost.
For many the answer would be a hard NO. But this happens every day. In Colorado, 12.5% of cannabis batches failed final product testing in 2018 and 2019. That’s one in eight batches! What happened to those products? Good question.
Enter: CAPA (Corrective Action and Preventive Action) programs! For people with a background in quality and GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices), CAPA is a household name. And, it’s quickly becoming a requirement that cannabis regulatory bodies are looking at. Colorado was the first state to explicitly require CAPA programs for all license holders effective January of this year and has provided a free resource for them. But, for the large majority of people, including those in the cannabis industry, it’s just another acronym.
What does a CAPA program do?
The benefits are numerous but two major ones are:
An effective tool for investigating the true root cause
First of all, a CAPA program provides the framework for a tool for investigation – as Murphy’s Law posits – things go wrong all of the time. Whether you have a manual, labor-intensive process or a highly automated operation, the equipment is programmed, maintained and monitored by humans. The logical sequence of problem solving within a CAPA program allows you to thoroughly investigate and determine the root cause of the issue. With a complete understanding of root cause, you are then able to eliminate it and prevent future occurrences – not just in the one area investigated, but in all similar situations throughout the company.
System for continuous improvement
Anyone who is in the market for a new car lately can appreciate the technological advances. In the 1980s, it was air bags and ABS brakes (those of you that drive in snowy climates and remember having to pump your brakes can appreciate technological advancements). Bluetooth technology for hands-free communication and radio control is another example of continuous improvement in cars.
This is one of the biggest predictors and differentiators between profitable and successful companies with satisfied clients and one that is barely scraping by. The cost of poor quality adds up!
Key inputs in a CAPA system
If the output is an improved system and lower cost of quality, we need to make sure we’re considering the potential inputs.
Information that feeds into your CAPA system:
Every complaint must be recorded. Gather as much information as possible, but at a minimum: the product type/SKU, the customer name and date of purchase. If possible, the batch or product ID.
This is not necessarily to identify products for a recall, but to prevent…
Laboratory test results
This should not be restricted to final product testing, but include any in-process inspections. Say you have a product repeatedly failing final testing, what if it’s actually been consistently failing or very close to failing at the very first in-process inspection? It’s also important to work with your laboratory to understand their method validation process, including the accuracy, precision, robustness, etc.
Most people consider “environmental controls” to be things like temperature and humidity control. While that is true, it can also include pest and contamination control. Poorly designed infrastructure layouts are major contributors to product cross contamination as well.
Undetected supply chain issues (remember the broken bottles?) can add up fast! CAPAs for suppliers cannot just include supplier monitoring, but improvement in how you communicate your needs to your suppliers. It’s easy to overlook non-cannabis raw materials as sources of microbiological and chemical contamination. Conduct a risk assessment based on the type of contact with your product and the types of contamination possible and adjust your supplier qualification program accordingly.
Are you ready to recognize the benefits of a CAPA program?
One more major benefit of CAPA programs to mention before we go is … Preventive via predictive analytics.
In Colorado, 15% of the final tested cannabis flower products continue to fail, mostly due to mold and mildew. A quality system, with effective data capture that is funneled into a CAPA program can easily reduce this by 75%. For even a small business doing $2M per year in revenue, that equates to a revenue increase of nearly $200,000 with no additional expenses.
Whether you are operating in the State of Colorado or elsewhere, a CAPA and Recall program will provide immense value. In the best case, it will uncover systemic issues; worst case, it forces you to fix mild errors. What are you waiting for?
Between the patchwork quilt of rules and regulations that is the modern cannabis industry, products pass through many hands before being sold to a customer. From sourcing, cultivating, manufacturing, distributing and vending, the relationships between a licensee and their vendors/partners up and down the supply chain is complex and touches many stakeholders along the way.
While the focus on quality packaging, dope labeling, delicious ingredients and consistently potent cannabis is a priority for most companies, what often isn’t thought about is the liability in bringing these components together in terms of compliance.
Compliance responsibility falls on licensees as a direct term and condition of licensure within their state. To operate, licensees must maintain and be able to demonstrate compliance with a plethora of rules and regulations. Compliance is the name of the game in cannabis.
While most operators understand this, what most do not think about is how the compliance or noncompliance of their vendors affects their own liability.
Sharing Noncompliance & Liability
Licensees are the only entities in the supply chain that can be fined, administratively held, suspended, revoked or even arrested due to noncompliance. This fundamental nature means that supply chain partners are automatically segregated by whether or not they are plant touching licensees or not.
In the case of mutual licensees such as a manufacturer and dispensary, the liability for compliance falls on both entities. A single manufacturer that makes an error on labeling language or a cultivator using the incorrect containers both pass on their liability to any downstream partners.
iComply has seen regulators quarantine hundreds of products among multiple dispensaries who never checked the compliance of the supplying manufacturer. Surprisingly, most dispensaries don’t think of the liability passed to them amid hundreds of SKUs and multiple manufacturers and cultivators. Confounding the issue further is that everyone in the industry can interpret the same rules in completely different ways.
Assuming your supply chain partners are 100% compliant is a dangerous pitfall.
By not checking noncompliance from supply chain partners, operators accumulate evidence dating back years. Like METRC being off, these issues tend to snowball until they seem overwhelmingly difficult to handle. And it doesn’t just stop at labeling issues. Noncompliance can fall on all supply chain partners and be left in the hands of a licensee in a variety of ways.
Even worse, are supply chain partners who don’t have a motive to be compliant as they do not own licenses and often have a poor understanding of cannabis compliance. A packaging provider, marketing company, CBD provider, security company, vending machine providers, waste disposal companies and other commonplace suppliers and partners can often run afoul of regulations and put their licensed partners at risk.
Since regulators can only enforce the licensed entity, many states have made it clear that licensees are ultimately and fully responsible for any actions of noncompliance taken by third parties contracted by the company – regardless if they touch cannabis or not.
Areas of Common Noncompliance in Cannabis
Like a game of “Hot Potato” (worth millions of dollars), we’ve seen common noncompliance liability get passed down the supply chain in the following areas of cannabis operations:
Packaging and labeling
Test result manipulation
Input or ingredient defects
Inventory tracking errors
Recordkeeping and manifest errors
Some of these areas of noncompliance rely with non-licensed supply chain partners such as packaging, ingredients or third party printed labels. Often, these folks simply don’t know what they don’t know and make mistakes – not knowing the thousands of dollars they could be costing their licensed partner down the line.
Other areas in which compliance should be expected from licensed partners lies in product liability, test result issues, inventory tracking, manifests and recordkeeping. No one usually wants to be out of compliance and usually these issues arise from licensed partners who are simply confused, mistaken or ignorant to the requirements of ongoing and changing rules.
It’s hard to keep all of one’s suppliers and supply chain partners on the same page over the long run and amid a multitude of changing rules. But what you resist, persists…
Managing Compliance in the Cannabis Supply Chain
Nothing worth it is ever easy; but it is possible to identify common areas of noncompliance in one’s cannabis operation and supply chain partners and to do something about.
To identify problem areas, iComply recommends conducting regular auditing at a macro level; but to also dive deeper into micro level audits of all of one’s books and records (covering vendor files) and packaging and labeling for at least 12 months.
You don’t know what you don’t know, so one must begin by investigating and understanding where liabilities are occurring between themselves and their supply chain partners. Once valid feedback and noncompliance is discovered, it can be remediated.
Like triage, you have to stop the bleeding before you can prevent further injury.
It is always more expensive and time consuming to continue reacting to noncompliance and trying to fix issues after the fact. This is how snowball effects happen until the problems seem so overwhelming, operators tend to simply ignore the liability. While it is human nature, it is also extremely dangerous and detrimental when multimillion dollar licenses are on the line.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure –Benjamin Franklin
By implementing proactive compliance measures, cannabis businesses can avoid costly noncompliance consequences and position themselves as proactive checkpoints of supply chain compliance. We recommend integrating the following procedures, documents, training and tools into one’s operational compliance infrastructure:
New vendor checklist
Packaging and labeling checklists by product type
Virtual review of labels/non-cannabis packaging
Calendar expiration dates for licenses and products
Compliance auditing of key vendors and strong contracts regarding liability
Input product checklists and tracking as per GMP compliance
This snapshot is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the depths of liability a cannabis business is exposed to by its supply chain partners. To truly manage compliance, one must be aware of shared risk and implement proactive measures to prevent suppliers and supply chain partners from inadvertently affecting the operational compliance of your cannabis business.
Selecting Supply Chain Partners
There are plenty of fish in the sea and plenty of suppliers vying to do business with you. iComply has seen the good, the bad and the ugly. We’ve been on the front lines of developing markets like California where we warned our clients to steer clear of companies like Kushy Punch long before they finally lost their license for noncompliance.
We advise our clients on the importance of being selective and conducting due diligence in vetting supply chain partners and vendors. Most fundamentally, how aligned are the values of potential partners? Are they in the business for the same reasons you are? What brought them to the cannabis space? How do they value relationships and what do they know about compliance?
Too often when focused on price or speed, people miss the more important fundamentals of relationships. We serve as vetters for our clients whether they are shopping for a POS provider, a bank or a waste disposal company. Beyond the cultural alignment, the more objective questions begin to take shape in vetting a potential partner. This can differentiate between license holding and non-holding supply chain partners.
For plant-touching licensed partners, we recommend answering the following before entering into business partnerships that affect your supply chain:
Copies of licenses, contracts, and a catalogue of products
For products being selected, prior to ordering a sample, obtain a copy of the label by email first. Or an EMPTY sample of product packaging and labeling to vet against a packaging and labeling checklist.
Search news articles on the company and ask if they have had compliance issues before. Obtain documentation if there have been compliance issues previously.
Ask how they manage their compliance and prevent noncompliance down their supply chain. Do they train their staff? Do they conduct regular audits internally? How often do they update SOPs and reconcile inventory?
For non-plant touching partners, we recommend answering the following:
Obtain any certifications for quality assurance or in credentials for services.
Ask for references from other customers who have cannabis licenses.
Discover how familiar they are with the cannabis industry AND the rules and regulations in your market.
Ensure they have an understanding of how they impact your compliance. Discover how they plan on preventing areas of concern together.
Make sure they know you are ultimately responsible for noncompliance and understand what they are willing to do to protect you.
Ensuring accountability across the supply chain means selectively choosing partners who share the same values of integrity and professionalism. On more complicated deals, such as licensing IP or your brand to operators in new states or markets, we recommend that you mandate a compliance program that offers third-party validation to ensure the internal integrity of your partners. Too often, brand risk isn’t considered in the fast-paced expansion of the industry and operators must not only be vetted, but held accountable, when representing one’s brand and products.
For all intents and purposes, the wild web of the supply chain in cannabis is the industry. We are a collective of collaborators who all serve the goal of delivering high quality and safe products to cannabis consumers globally. For those committed to minimizing their risk to protect their profits, cannabis compliance is the key to success.
Ensuring accountability across the supply chain means selectively choosing partners who share the same values of integrity and professionalism. In doing so, the industry elevates its legitimacy and more effectively expands in a sustainable manner that protects all stakeholders involved.
Noncompliance affects licensees the most and they must be the most vigilant, but it takes a village to raise an industry. Compliance affects most everyone in the supply chain and the loss of any operator hurts the entire industry.
Private labelling, or white labelling, is a popular option for brands looking to enter the CBD space. This practice is where a product is manufactured by one company but branded, marketed and sold by another.
There are several companies that specialize in manufacturing end-to-end finished CBD products. They commonly provide third-party test results, certificates and data to verify the purity and potency of products created. Technically, all new brands need to do is place their label on the package and start selling! However with any new venture, establishing a successful private label CBD brand will inevitably mean various challenges need to be overcome.
Securing Quality Sources of CBD
Finding the right partners to work with is a must. The best way to source credible and trustworthy suppliers and manufacturers is to look for certifications and audits from third-party agencies. These include the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), the Safe Quality Food (SQF), the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic certification program and others.
The USDA organic certification program is a rigorous multi-step audit process to increase supply chain sustainability. Organic certification is a form of elective, self-regulation for manufacturers which consumers have eagerly welcomed into the marketplace. Look for the USDA organic seal to help identify which manufacturers are trustworthy and can produce a range of organic products.
From a consumer perspective, certifying your products as organic is an additional way to provide both supply chain transparency and increase confidence when trying new CBD products. It also provides a form of quality assurance to skeptical consumers, especially those who avidly read product labels prior to making a purchasing decision. Members of this “label reader” demographic will consistently choose organic products for the quality and transparency they provide with pure and natural ingredients.
Creating a Unique Product
Innovation and creativity will continue to be important differentiators due to the highly competitive nature of the CBD marketplace. New ingredient innovations such as water dispersible materials are big game-changers. From chewing gum to energy drinks, the opportunities for new and unique CBD products under your own private label are limitless.
There are only a handful of CBD brands who are willing, or even able, to be certified organic today. USDA certification is an opportunity for brands looking to adapt to changing consumer preferences, diversify their product offerings and invest in supply chain transparency.
In the past, product differentiators involved third-party lab testing or providing COAs — today that’s just industry standard. The USDA organic seal is becoming one of the hemp industry’s most coveted certifications because it is a product differentiator.
Trustworthiness, transparency and traceability are important factors for consumers to consider when shopping for products. These factors should also be considered when producing products and while vetting vendors, partners, stakeholders and supply chain suppliers.
Credible certifications allow consumers to make informed decisions while feeling confident that they are purchasing products from reputable sources. Research has shown that today’s CBD market lacks credibility while consumers are desperately seeking comfort and are eager to purchase from trustworthy brands.
The cannabis supply chain – from seed to sale – is rife with intricacies including regulations and compliance. It requires coordination from multiple vendors responsible for different aspects of the end product. And as the industry either grows or retracts, use of data is vital to right-size supply to demand, enhance operational efficiencies and boost cost effectiveness.
However, there’s an industry-wide, data-management vulnerability among many cannabis companies, and it’s this: many are using spreadsheets in different aspects of data collection, management and analysis. This becomes a shaky foundation on which to manage processes, especially for applications like quality management. And to be fair, it’s not just this industry, but arguably cannabusinesses have more on the line in light of the ever-changing regulatory environment.
Many cannabis companies have some systems in place for order processing, inventory management, production management and the like, but they often still use spreadsheets to fill the intelligence gaps among various systems that don’t talk to one another. Managing supplier quality often falls into one those gaps.
The Problem with Spreadsheets
Most businesspeople understand spreadsheets. They know how to build and use them. Spreadsheets are incredibly powerful tools that are used to run more business processes than perhaps any other software product in the world. When a cannabis business first starts out, spreadsheets offer an affordable data management capability. But there comes a time when the business will need a more sophisticated, end-to-end enterprise solution.
Consider a recent incident in which the use of spreadsheets went terribly wrong. The British Government recently misplaced nearly 16,000 COVID-19 test results due to an Excel spreadsheet error. As a result, potentially infectious people may not have been notified by contact tracers that they should self-quarantine.
In the ERP space, spreadsheets have been an issue since the 90’s, but this recent incident serves as a reminder that an overreliance on spreadsheets is still alive and kicking. One of the problems is that spreadsheets are often pushed beyond their intended use. Microsoft Excel has become the software Swiss Army Knife. There’s a development environment inside the software, and the system is often used as a database, not just as a calculation engine.
Companies outgrow spreadsheets when the volume of data fields increase, multiple users need access to the data, iron-clad audit trails are needed and when processes become more complex.
There’s also a breaking point. Cannabis companies may enter a dangerous zone of “too many spreadsheets,” when data security and integrity are at risk. Interestingly enough, this also happens in large companies, as they often have a mish-mash of on-premises legacy systems, acquired systems and new cloud-based systems – and spreadsheets are then used as the data consolidation tool for all these applications.
Applicability to the Cannabis Supply Chain
Visibility into the cannabis supply chain requires detailed track and trace capabilities across many suppliers. Anything left out means guesswork and more opportunities for mistakes. In other words, cobbled-together spreadsheets are the last thing cannabis businesses should rely on. Aggregating data into a spreadsheet from various systems and paper-based processes invites errors and can result in insights that are weeks or months out of date. Worse yet, there’s no drilldown capability when questions arise and no easy roll-up of information for decision-making.
When supply chain quality must be sustained, the role of a common and integrated cloud platform for quality and ERP cannot be understated. Such a platform can capture sales, operations, inventory and purchasing data, and also integrate with production and quality control. This makes your quality processes and data integral to ERP and eliminates the data fragmentation, control and auditability issues associated with spreadsheets. In addition, companies can leverage operational insights from data reporting and analytics to find areas where they can enhance productivity, optimize inventory, improve planning accuracy and build better forecasts.
Moving to the Cloud
Modern cloud ERP provides this type of seamless platform. It’s easier to implement and does not consume as many IT resources as traditional on-premise ERP systems. Better yet, the more recent versions of cloud ERP are built using low-code technology which enables business users to customize screens, modify workflow processes, build their own apps and embed AI without needing expensive IT consultants or waiting for busy IT staff.
In other words, the flexibility that’s been the lure of spreadsheets is now available in cloud ERP, but the system utilizes proverbial governance guardrails that keep business users from swerving off the road and completely wrecking the system. For example, templates for apps and workflows are provided as a starting point. Business rules and “drag and drop” customization capabilities offer guided options, clearly defining what can and cannot be changed.Rootstock will be presenting during the Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference episode, Supply Chain Quality, on October 27. Click here to learn more
And as a result, quality steps aren’t skipped; audit trails remain intact and data is protected with rock-solid security permissions and data backups. And unlike spreadsheets, new ERP systems are designed for multiple users and remote access via mobile devices. In short, with the latest generation of ERP, companies can leverage the best of both worlds – an end-to-end cloud platform that provides data integration across an organization’s operation and the flexibility and ease-of-use of spreadsheets.
Supply Chain Case in Point
One customer we worked with previously coordinated its supply chain via email and Excel spreadsheets. It cut and pasted requisitions into individual supplier spreadsheets and emailed those out, and it kept a master spreadsheet to keep track of all supplier performance. Team members had to sift through spreadsheet columns and rows to find information they needed.
Today with a cloud platform, the company built an online community so processes could be automated and conducted via real-time connection and communications. Another immediate benefit was the customized supply chain dashboard. All relevant data across their entire supply chain was displayed in one place and in a user-friendly manner.
The dashboard showed production forecasts over a certain period of time. The company could detect whether the supply chain was on track or having issues with certain suppliers. It could see planned requisitions and monitor them until fulfillment was complete. It could also monitor the performance of various suppliers, whether they had on-time deliveries or not – and trace back items received. The company essentially has a snapshot of the overall health of its supply chain and all the underlying activity.
Let’s face it. 2020 has been a difficult year, but perhaps it’s the year that companies finally forego spreadsheets and enlist an industrial-strength cloud platform.
All major industries took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, but in many states, cannabis dispensaries were labeled as essential, which has allowed the industry to continue with some alterations. The impact now will come from what innovations and improvements the industry can leverage going forward.
From changes to protocols and buyer behaviors to supply chain disruptions, there were many new hurdles for the industry in addition to the ones cannabis businesses already faced, such as funding. But the silver lining could be that businesses within the cannabis industry become less of a specialty and more ‘every day’ than ever before.
The effects of the pandemic on the cannabis industry
Overall, the industry has fared well, in part thanks to its distinction as an essential service in states where cannabis is legal. It’s possible states made this decision for the same reason that alcohol businesses were deemed essential in most places: hospitals are not equipped during pandemic times to take care of people who are being forced to detox or those suffering from anxiety because they don’t have access to their legal drug of choice.
In a multitude of ways, cannabis businesses have adapted to bring calm in a storm while at the same time making manufacturing adjustments to meet the CDC guidelines. For example, there is more attention placed on individually pre-packaged products for single use; something that is less sharable as an experience but eminently practical.
Another area that has shifted a little is in the limiting of the exchange and interaction between business owners and staff relative to the customers. It’s all in the aim of mitigating the risk of exposure, but it has changed the dynamic in many cannabis businesses. This is the new normal for the time being and the industry has adapted well.
Ultimately, retail cannabis businesses today are no different than the retail of candy, cigarettes or alcohol. Certainly, segments of the industry have still struggled. Lack of tourism and the curbside/take out circumstances at dispensaries took their toll. But without the opportunity to still conduct business in some capacity, 50-60% of all operators would have gone out of business. Plus, as many people use cannabis to offset medical symptoms, including pain management, there is a legitimate need for cannabis to be available. The pandemic has provided the opportunity for many who might not have tried it before to give it a chance to help them medicinally.
Behaviors have changed, including those of buyers
Driven by consumer interests, many dispensaries have adapted to provide curbside pickup options, delivery of online orders and more. That has meant that the customer also needs to be more knowledgeable about cannabis: the experienced consumer knows what they like and want and can make their choices at a distance. Someone who is new to cannabis use might find navigating the choices and options a little more difficult, without the help of experienced staff. The breadth of material online and the ability of some dispensaries to share content that helps the consumer to make choices, in the absence of walking around the dispensary, have been additional tools at the disposal of businesses.
That said, the cannabis industry today is not a vastly different one: it is adapting to the new rules and new reality. Whether this way of doing business—at a distance—is a temporary or permanent solution will be dependent upon what federal and state regulators dictate in the months ahead, but there is likely to be ongoing demand for being able to order online and keep social distance protocols in place.
An interesting example is the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) in Ontario, Canada. This is a government run shop that has retail as well as a robust online presence, with free delivery during the pandemic. This has facilitated an increase in new customers, which had already jumped, post legalization. People who might have felt uncomfortable going into a dispensary can still learn about cannabis online and order it, from the relative comfort and safety of their sofa.
Supply chain disruptions and the cannabis industry
The industry has long been focused on overseas suppliers. With the arrival of the pandemic and restrictions on obtaining products from other countries, supply chains have been disrupted for many cannabis businesses. That has forced many to shift their supply chains to more local manufacturers, in North and South America.
In the long run, this should have a positive impact for the industry, so that despite the short-term disruption to the supply chain, which is having an impact on the industry as a whole, there could be an upside for local producers, growers and manufacturers. It will take time to know how this will all play out.
Funding and other issues for the cannabis industry
For a new cannabis startup in these times, the key will be what it has always been for any business, just to a greater degree: due diligence. Companies that want to open a cannabis business, whether during the pandemic or not, need to evaluate the opportunity as one would any investment. It’s all about the numbers: data for the industry as a whole and specifically from competition. These days, that data is widely available and more and more consultants and investors have expertise in this industry. “Overall, there is more interest in the industry than ever before”
It’s vital to be extremely well versed, particularly for businesses that are relatively new in the industry, because the single biggest issue for many has and will continue to be funding and investment. The cannabis industry is no different than any other business, except for the fact that it is a specialty business. With that comes the need to look for funding among investors who have some knowledge or appreciation for the industry.
Some of the key concerns traditional investors will have include:
Regulatory differences from state to state: since cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, there can be an array of hurdles at state and local level that make cannabis businesses trickier to work with.
There are religious based/morality issues for some lenders in dealing with the industry. These aren’t dissimilar from issues with other industries such as adult entertainment and gaming. It’s also fair to point out that, morality aside, these industries have thrived in the last several decades.
So, while traditional banking institutions will often deal with the proceeds from the cannabis industry, including allowing bank accounts for these businesses, there is far less of a chance that they would invest in a cannabis business, for fear of risking their license. They can even go so far as to refuse to include income from a cannabis business in the determination of a loan application.
There are more unique lending or investing groups that either specialize in cannabis or are starting to open their books to specialize in cannabis. Overall, there is more interest in the industry than ever before, as it becomes normalized in American society: more participants and more insiders of the industries that are willing to invest in the right idea.
Will legalization be more likely in the future?
The fact that cannabis businesses and dispensaries have been deemed essential services during the pandemic, where they legally operate, has shed new light on the relevance of these businesses and the advantages of more widespread legalization.“Consumers will help drive the innovations as they demand clean consumption methods”
In fact, the pandemic has normalized a lot of new behaviors, including the acceptable use of cannabis to help with stress and anxiety. People are, perhaps thanks to staying at home more, doing the legwork to understand how cannabis could be useful to them in managing their stress. The medicinal benefits of cannabis have long been researched and understood: consumers are coming into the fray to express their interest in it, which can only fuel the possibility of more widespread legalization.
Add to this the fact that the cannabis industry is a growth industry. There are companies and jobs that aren’t coming back, post-pandemic. There is an opportunity to grow the cannabis industry to the general benefit of many, both as business owners and employees. The revenue generated from taxation following legalization would also benefit many state coffers. Federal level legalization would be the panacea to eliminate the mixed message, state by state regulation that currently exists.
Opportunities for innovation, moving forward
As more and more people become interested in the industry, and as cannabis use is normalized within society through legalization, the opportunities for the industry can only expand.
For an industry that started on the simple concept of smoking cannabis, the advances have already been legion: edibles, nanotechnology-based formulations for effective, clean consumption and many more innovations.
In a world that increasingly sees smoking as a negative, for the obvious impact to lung health, there are so many opportunities to grow the industry to find consumption methods that are safe and still deliver the impact of the inhaled version.
Here again, consumers will help drive the innovations as they demand clean consumption methods. The technology is available to make this possible; it only takes innovation and education to find the best ways to move this industry forward.
As legalization expands—and particularly if it is dealt with at the federal level—the industry will be able to capitalize on existing infrastructure for manufacturing and distribution, allowing new businesses to grow, get funded and thrive in the new normal.
One of the biggest challenges that cultivators, processors and distributors face in doing business is the requirement to track the product at every step in the production process, from seed to sale. When you add the wide range of label sizes and requirements across the supply chain, labeling can feel overwhelming. While business systems such as METRC, BioTrack, MJFreeway and others are key, integrating accurate and secure barcode labeling with those systems will streamline the end-to-end process while meeting traceability requirements. Here are some things to consider, no matter what role in the cannabis supply chain you play.
Cultivation: Where Tracking and Labeling Starts
It’s crucial to implement accurate labeling processes from the beginning, whether growing for a customer or your own vertically integrated operation. The cannabis industry is faced with strict labeling regulations for a variety of cannabis products. Start with a labeling system that can integrate with METRC, BioTrack, MJ Freeway or other seed to sale software solutions. Your barcode labeling solution should also include label approval requirements, so you have role-based access and transparency with label changes and print history in case of issues or recalls. Whatever cannabis labeling regulations your business faces, label design software helps you create compliant cannabis labels throughout the supply chain, from grower to consumer.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Labeling
Select regulations require growers to leverage RFID technology to track the location of the plants in their grow houses. RFID technology also enables accurate real-time inventory analysis and helps reduce manual labor costs, as well as errors that can occur with manual counting. To accurately encode RFID tags with variable plant data, be sure you are using a barcode labeling system that can enable easy RFID tag encoding that integrates data from all your business systems. Fastening RFID tags to plants across your grow house floor enables quick and easy location tracking, and RFID reading removes the need for a manual line of sight and allows hundreds of tags to be read at the same time, speeding up shipping and receiving.
After a plant is cultivated, a certain percentage is sent to a lab to be tested to ensure its proper strain, weight and compound makeup. After your product has been lab tested, leverage the data from your certificate of analysis to accurately display on your cannabis product labels, including:
Pass/fail chemical testing
Final date of testing & packaging
Identification of testing lab
Cannabinoid profile & potency levels
Efficiently display lab testing results on product labels with the use of a QR code for the consumer to review the independent lab’s certificate of analysis
Processing and Production: Tracking and Labeling After the Plant Has Been Harvested
A lot of information needs to go on a cannabis label. Whether you’re producing pre-rolls, packaged flower, edibles, beverages, topicals or cartridges, your labeling software must have the capability to create a wide variety of label sizes with barcodes that encode a large volume of data, while also being fully compliant and showing consumer appeal.
Your cannabis labeling software should do the following for you:
Support database integration to populate variable data from METRC, BioTrack, and other systems
Import high-resolution artwork and leverage with dynamic barcodes and variable data
Contain barcode creation wizards for 1D & 2D barcodes
Automate weigh & print
RGB/CMYK color matching
Feature secure label approval processes, label change tracking and print history
Offer WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get) printing
Automatically trigger printing directly from scales and scanners when cannabis is weighed
Integrate labeling with your seed to sale software solution to automatically trigger label printing by an action in your seed to sale system or by monitoring a database. By integrating your label printing system with your seed to sale traceability system, you can expect to minimize errors, increase print speeds and maximize your ROI. Your business system already holds the variable data such as product names, license number, batch or lot codes, allergens, net quantity, cannabis facts, warning statements and more. By systematically sending this data to the right label template at the right time, labeling becomes an efficient and cost-effective process.
Distribution: labeling for consumer and industry demands
The ability to manage and distribute inventory efficiently is critical in the cannabis market. Warehouses and distributors need to ensure proper storage, handling and traceability of product, from the warehouse to the truck.
Leverage your labeling software to easily create:
Case & pallet labels
If you use the same data for your documents and labels, consider moving document printing into your label design software for greater efficiency. An advanced label creation and integration software enables label and document printing standardization by allowing multiple database records to be on one file. That means when new documents or labels come into your database, your software can seamlessly integrate.
Dispensaries can benefit from integrated seed to sale labeling for traceability, speed to market
Whether you’re a small outlet or a large dispensary, you benefit from integrated barcode labeling that starts from the beginning of the process. How? When barcode labeling software is integrated with seed to sale software, product is fully traced throughout the entire process, from tagging each plant at cultivation to identifying the consumer at point of sale, and accurately communicating that data back to METRC, BioTrack and other critical systems. Some dispensaries do package raw flower onsite, which many times means manually weighing, recording and entering the weight on the label, which is a time consuming and error-prone process. Integrating weigh and print functionality with barcode software enables dispensaries to use the action of weighing raw flower to automatically trigger the label print job. The variable weight is then accurately and automatically populated on cannabis flower package labels, creating an accurate and efficient on-demand labeling process for dispensaries. With efficient labeling processes, time spent creating, correcting, approving and printing labels will be reduced, getting product on the shelves faster.
Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the fifth and final article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.
In this week’s article, we talk with Kristen Suchanec, VP of Production at Island. Kristen converted her experience in traditional consumer packaged goods to cannabis to help create a brand that is sought after by many. The interview with Kristen was conducted on August 21, 2020.
Aaron Green: Good afternoon Kristen, I am glad we were able to put this interview together. I know you have been very busy!
Kristen Suchanec: I’m so sorry this took so long to actually work! Thank you for bearing with me. I’m happy we are able to talk.
Aaron: Great! I like to start off the conversation with a question that helps our readers get to know you a little better. So, Kristen can you tell me how you got involved at Island?
Kristen: My background is in manufacturing and planning for consumer packaged goods. I had a friend of a friend and we were just at a happy hour and I asked what he was up to. He was actually our VP of Finance at Island and he handed me a box of pre-rolled joints. They were our Island Minis and I thought it was a great customer experience. I loved the brand and packaging which made it a consumer product versus, you know, this was a few years back where cannabis wasn’t necessarily commoditized or branded. I got really excited about that because I feel like cannabis should be traditional CPG and it should appeal to different people and it should have different brands that appeal to those different groups. So I literally just started a conversation. His brother is our founder and CEO and they needed someone to run production so that was my background and it all kind of lined up and I ended up being employee number five at Island!
Aaron: Wow, employee number five – awesome! OK, great. That is some nice background about how you got involved at the company. The next questions get into product development and manufacturing. The first question is: what’s your decision process for starting a new product?
Kristen: Yea, we are right now owning the lane between cultivation and distribution. So, getting those raw materials for whether it be concentrates or flower and then converting them into that final packaging for everything. So that is what we focus on and spend all of our time with automation and trying to make that process as efficient as possible.
When we’re looking at a new product we’re not necessarily creating a new extraction, we are really looking at the market and the end consumer and what people want. At Island we’ve really focused on vape, pre-roll and packaged flower. Those are the three categories we are working on right now. We are expanding and looking to move more towards vape and live resins and specialty concentrated products that we haven’t really had in our portfolio before. What we would like to do is make sure we have the capability to manufacture that and then take a look at where we think the market is going. We are trying to go in the flower, pre-roll and vape because that is where we spent so much of our time getting pieces of automation so not everything we are bringing in house is manual.
Aaron: Now when you say the capability to manufacture that are you talking about from a packaging perspective or…?
Kristen: Yes, so we won’t do any extraction on site. It’s getting distillate, shatter and flower and then we take that and convert that either into pre-rolled joint, a package of flower or any other final product. So, we are looking at automating that packaging piece.
Aaron: Got it. OK, so the next question — and I think you kind of touched on this as well — are you involved in manufacturing to the extent that you are manufacturing the packaging?
Kristen: Yes absolutely. My whole team’s manufacturing is based out of Oakland. That’s where we do all the conversion of products. I oversee that entire team and have been really involved in a lot of the equipment that we have sourced and iterations that we’ve gone through to make sure that we’re able to automate as much as possible. We’ve really focused on the issue of weighing the material. For our flower line everything is weighed and put into a jar, capped, sealed and labeled for it to come off our lines. We don’t have anyone in packing or anything like that. Our pre-rolls manufacturing is an automated machine where it actually weighs the flower before going into the cone so we’re not having to weigh after the fact and take into account the weight of the cone because that’s so variable so we know that the customer is getting consistency. Then for the vapes, it’ssame thing – the volumetric doses everything.
I have to give my credit to everyone on the floor who is doing the day to day, they find so many new solutions since they are the ones that are hands on. I am really involved in what new equipment we need, what problems we are looking to solve and what’s causing our bottlenecks so we can continue to improve our process week over week and year over year.
Aaron: We’ll dig into some of those problems in a bit. What is your process for not just starting new product but for developing a new product?
Kristen: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think it’s really interesting to see where the market is going. What’s selling really well and especially over the past year pre rolls have been a huge growth platform for us. And especially now, we’ve seen some changes because of COVID as well. We have single joints. But then we have our Minis, which I’ve mentioned before, which are half gram joints. We’re seeing sales on those actually increased because I think people are sharing joints as people want individual things because of this pandemic.
When we go through this process, we’re really – again – we’re so focused on what the consumer wants, and what we think is going to add to our portfolio. Then when marketing and our product team comes to me, we really focus on our machinery, what we can do with it currently, and if we would need something additional. So,we’re excited about expanding into 510s right now. We’re looking at how we can automate the process of capping – we can fill right now, but not cap. And then we also take a look at packaging.
I think it’s a little different than creating like a whole new product, extraction or anything like that, but we were looking at more sustainable options for packaging for child resistance because we’re trying to move away from barrier bags as much as possible. We’re looking at, okay, how many stickers do we need to put on there? What is the labor time going into each piece of product? And again, how are we eventually going to get some consistency across product lines, etc.
So, it’s really taking all three of those components, making sure we’re getting out the customer that feels like they want. I’m having it either fit into our process or again, then go through and look at what automations meanand automation equipment investment you want to make for long term future investments.
Aaron: Are you developing new products internally, or are you relying on outside manufacturers for that?
Kristen: Not everything we do is internal. We have a big network of, you know, cultivators and extractors we work with, but we’re in the midst of getting our own cultivation and manufacturing in house by working with other companies. So with that we’re doing everything.
Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants for helping out with your processes?
Kristen: No, we don’t bring in consultants. But we have brought in another brand into our fold via a brand called Neutron Genetics. That is part of our overall portfolio. We work very closely with the founder because he has a lot of trade secrets, a lot of his own processes to make sure you’re getting the best product for that specific brand.
Aaron: In your product development, what does getting stuck look like to you?
Kristen: That’s a good question. I think one of the biggest challenges is working with the plant itself, because it’s not consistent and it’s not homogenous. You could get the same strain from the same cultivator, but it’ll be a different batch. It might be a little stickier or a little larger, etc. When you’re looking at traditional manufacturing and automation, you want consistency, homogenized liquids, same viscosity every time, and we don’t have that because the plant itself is natural and is going to have all these different expressions depending on the batch and how it was grown and how it was trimmed even.“I think it’s really the proper equipment, the proper training and then, again, continuing to evolve as a team.”
So, getting stuck means finding an off-the-shelf solution that might work for, you know, nuts and bolts or some kind of food production and then you’re going to have to convert it to actually work with the cannabis plant. So that’s what makes it so challenging, but also really exciting. In the bud, humidity and air can really throw off a manufacturing process which is really different than just doing beverages for example.
Getting stuck means really having to work with the plant concentrates specifically if you think about just the nature of those whether it be shatter, distillate or very sticky product. So again, working with machinery isn’t always what goes hand in hand. So, getting stuck is dealing with all those different formats and inconsistency using the same product day after day.
Aaron: It sounds like consistency is kind of a main topic here?
Kristen: Yeah, I think it depends on what product format we have. For example, about a year ago, we launched infused pre-rolls for Neutron where we’re putting flower, kief and shatter into a joint. So that’s going to perform differently on a piece of machinery than just straight flower.
I think it all depends on the product. Usually it happens when it’s in that machine, you’re trying to get a good flow and a good consistency. You want to have time studies, you know how long it takes to make each batch. But if a certain flower mix is performing differently, it’s getting the settings of the machine dialed, right? It’s also properly training personnel so people know how to react when things get going. Sometimes things get physically stuck in the machine as well, so to be able to react on that.
I think it’s really the proper equipment, the proper training and then, again, continuing to evolve as a team. So for our pre-roll machine, we are now on our third version of it, just because we kept running into the same roadblocks and I’m hoping that continues to evolve and we just continue to get better equipment year after year.
Aaron: I see, do you ever hire outside consultants when you do get stuck?
Kristen: We’ve worked closely with vendors. I will say that we’re not a machine shop or engineering firm. So we’re not the ones creating a lot of what we use on the floor. We’ve partnered with various vendors, which has been helpful, but we haven’t used external consultants.“When you see the huge potential and then see how much is taken out from illegal activity right now, it is frustrating to see.”
Aaron: Okay, now imagine that you have a magic wand and somebody can come in and help you. What does your magic helper look like?
Kristen: I could probably make a really long list if I’m focusing on just my manufacturing and everything! I think the next thing which we’re already thinking about that magic wand is how to get a perfectly rolled joint without having so much manual human touch to it. And like I said, we’ve really attached to that weighing problem. And we’ve seen solutions out there that you know, claim to twist and have that “perfect roll” and you don’t need to even touch it. But I think the biggest challenge there is it depends how well it’s packed. You know, you don’t want it too tight. You don’t want it too loose for that customer experience. So getting that quality, if I could wave a magic wand where I’m putting in, you know, paper on one side and out comes perfectly rolled joints, that would be my magic wand for sure. Okay, I think there’s a lot of solutions out there but to get that quality and that consumer experience that we want, I haven’t seen working practice yet.
Aaron: Okay, What’s the what’s the most frustrating thing you’re going through with the business right now?
Kristen: Again, that could be a long list! I think from a more macro-level, it’s definitely the competition with the illicit market and just how there’s not enough outlets for legal cannabis right now in the state of California. When you see the huge potential and then see how much is taken out from illegal activity right now, it is frustrating to see. We’re going to get this growth and projection of the right number of dispensary licenses and things like that are definitely a huge frustration as well as with the tax structure right now because it’s obviously contributing to people going to the illicit market.
Aaron: So what are you following in the market? And what do you want to learn more about?
Kristen: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think the thing I’m most excited about for the larger population isjust more research to come out about the actual attributes of the plant, or how different cannabinoids react together and can have different effects. How terpenes can affect the high, how things can be used and distantly, recreationally, etc. And really, hopefully evolve and move away from strictly some sativa, hybrid,indica classifications, and really be able to educate the consumer more about the plant so people can have a more a personal relationship to understand how cannabinoids or specific terpenes are going to give them a different effect. And again, I think that’s so interesting because it could be used for therapeutic reasons that people do consume cannabis or it could just make it a better experience for people who want to take this as an escape or a way to relax and everything. So I’m really excited because more research is going to be able to get done and we can really learn more about how all of these things interact in the body and then people can take it to a whole new experience and be more educated all around.
Aaron: Alright that’s the end of the interview Kristen! Nice chatting and meeting you!
Before jumping into what cannabis businesses can do amid this pandemic, it is crucial to explore the specifics behind how the virus impacted the industry as a whole. From a surface level, it seems obvious what happened: dispensaries had to implement social distancing protocols, require both customers and employees to wear masks and limited the number of customers that can be present on the point-of-sale floor room. But COVID-19 did not merely make shopping experiences a tab bit inconvenient.
Cannabis producers, and especially those involved in manufacturing cannabis goods, experienced an apparent disruption in their production schedules. If the metals and plastics were sourced from Wuhan, Shenzhen or any other dense industrial area in China, supplies suddenly stopped coming, and producers were left with limited production options. Businesses did not consider the value of having various vendors and instead put all their stock in one source. A disruption in production inherently impacts dispensaries.
COVID-19 impacted more than just supply chains, however. For instance, investors are now less likely than before the pandemic to invest in early-stage cannabis companies. Competition for capital now far outweighs the supply for cannabis companies, and we have seen (and will continue to see) a drop in company valuations. Indeed, COVID-19 is affecting more than just currently existing operators but those yet struggling to create cannabis businesses of their own.
Vendors & Supplies
A broad survey conducted by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) between February 22, 2020 and March 5, 2020 found that 75% of U.S. companies had experienced supply chain disruption as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. An estimated 90-95% of all components utilized in cannabis vaporizer pens were sourced from manufacturers in Shenzhen, China. In contrast, very few companies used domestic manufacturers. While this is just one example, it is equally important to note that cannabis-specific equipment and supply shortages were not the only factors that disrupted cannabis businesses. Shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) presented challenges for cannabis dispensaries, producers and manufacturers that continued to operate during the “shelter in place” orders.
Operators must establish a resilient supply chain. Do not simply limit your options to one specific region, as this can be a costly mistake. Operators must cultivate an in-depth understanding of their supply chain beyond critical suppliers and their stress points; they need to develop and follow a systematic supply process that takes potential disruptions and stress points into account. When vetting potential vendors, always ask detailed questions that elicit evidence-backed responses. Ask vendors where they source their materials from, whether they have any history of experiencing disruptions in their supply chain and what kind of setbacks they have suffered as a result of COVID-19.
Investing in Your Core Business
In light of COVID-19, operators must invest in solutions that increase efficiency and improve the customer’s experience. This entails ensuring your customer safely enters and leaves your dispensary with a product they are satisfied with—the essence of any retail operation. Your operation should focus on enhancing customer flow as opposed to encouraging aimless roaming. Having an open-space, Apple store style dispensaries might have been a popular option before, but times have changed, and dispensaries must adapt.
Guided purchases offer not just more efficient transactions, but also serve to ensure that your waiting room isn’t backed up with an endless stream of unmanageable customers. Depending on your locally-mandated COVID-19 protocols, your dispensary will likely not be permitted to hold a high number of customers in the store, nor should it during this pandemic. Each customer service representative must be active as opposed to passive, directly asking customers what they are interested in, offering product or strain choices when customers seem unsure and answering questions as thoroughly as possible to avoid confusion and inherently delays. Be sure to emphasize the value of guided purchases to your employees and how they can promote the safety of both themselves and their customers.
The uncertainty of COVID-19 and its impact on the general economy has left many individuals “clocked out.” Simply put, many people feel that they should wait until things go back to normal before making any critical decisions. As essential businesses, cannabis operators cannot afford to make this same mistake. Now is not the time to sit back, reflect and wait for the vaccine. Instead, operators must work to precisely assess how COVID-19 impacted their business and execute a clear plan of action to address foreseeable problems.
Execution is far more important than perfection; you’ll need to make changes on a dime and avoid spending excessive hours obsessing over debating specific actions rather than taking them. It is far more essential to get tasks done versus ensuring they are perfect. If something is not working in your business, it must be readdressed or removed entirely from the protocol. It is far better to make necessary changes now amid the pandemic as opposed to reactively waiting and seeing what may come next following it.
Stay nimble by cutting out any factors that may be slowing down your company’s efficiency. Is your point-of-sale system causing issues? Can you use a better payment processing tool? Are any employees underperforming? Are there any internal policies that may be hindering your employees’ ability to work as optimally as possible? These are some of the many factors that must be considered to ensure your business stays agile and adaptable. Determine what is working against you and execute a plan of action to address. Do not wait and do not take shortcuts around regulations.
Understanding the Shift in Purchasing Behavior
Regardless of whether or not a vaccine for COVID-19 is completed anytime soon, operators must know that there is no “returning to normal.” People’s habits and behaviors have changed due to this virus, whereas slow browsing of items might have been preferable for some individuals before COVID-19; this is likely not the case today. Furthermore, research groups like Accenture have found that most customers expect their shopping habits to change permanently.
In the study mentioned above, shopping more consciously is one of the two top priorities for customers during this pandemic. According to Accenture, “[c]onsumers are more mindful of what they’re buying. They are striving to limit food waste, shop more cost consciously and buy more sustainable options. Brands will need to make this a key part of their offer (e.g., by exploring new business models).” Furthermore, customers are now more likely to shop locally; this is why community engagement would be especially important to ensure you develop transparency and trust between your brand and your customers. Understanding this shift in purchasing behavior will remain one of the more crucial tasks of any cannabis operator.
Expanding Sales Avenues
More and more customers are now relying on online and curbside purchases than ever before. Dispensaries must look to their current sales avenues and determine where key focuses should be made. Use your sales data to determine where customers are making their purchases the most, be it through third-party delivery services such as Eaze, standard home delivery, online ordering or curbside pickup. Focus on identifying friction and streamlining the user experience on all customer-facing platforms and services. Equally, consider which platform your customers are using the most to make purchases; are they making more online purchases, or do most still prefer direct shopping at the store? Remember that having more products doesn’t necessarily mean more revenue. You must also identify which products are performing well and which have low margins.
These considerations can help strengthen your highest performing platform while working to fix any more inferior performing platforms. As stated before, stay nimble; if something is not working out, cut it out from your business model, and move forward. Do not be afraid to cut poor-performing platforms to hone your focus on the successful ones. Since post-COVID-19 shopping behavior is likely to stay permanent, these changes may still be applicable following a slowdown or cessation of the virus.
Delighting Your Customers
Virus or not, customer satisfaction remains one of the most crucially defining points for the future of your business. Your customers must be safe and must be happy with their purchase. To ensure this outcome, you need to maintain adequate safety policies while equally promoting streamlined purchases. Although a limited number of individuals may be annoyed with over-the-top safety precautions, most customers will enjoy the heightened security that comes alongside these types of measures.
Contactless service, such as having customers scan their identification upon entry or encouraging more credit card versus cash transactions, can increase customer satisfaction, as they will feel a stronger sense of security when shopping at your dispensary. Focus on streamlining curbside pickup. Things such as requiring vehicle descriptions (e.g., license plate numbers, color, make) for curbside pickup purchases can go a long way in helping employees quickly identify customers.
Equally, be sure there is hand sanitizer available near the entrance of your dispensary. This adds a further sense of security for your shoppers. Delivery should be consistent; delays and setbacks must be minimal to win the confidence of your customers. Take the extra steps to ensure your dispensary is clean and products hygienic. All these factors work to increase customer satisfaction while maintaining their safety, and more importantly, impact the level of trust your customers have in association with your brand.
Scaling Operations Taking Advantage of Limited Competition in Emerging Markets
As stated before, several individuals—including existing and emerging cannabis businesses—are clocked out following COVID-19. This mindset is not only detrimental for operations but can also impact how you scale your business. New markets are coming online and will continue to do so as regulators are increasingly incentivized to replenish government coffers. Riverside County in California, for instance, is now allowing for capless licenses for all cannabis business types. However, what remains the key focus for regulators is expanding the number of delivery and distribution operators. In Massachusetts, delivery endorsements for dispensaries are available without a set deadline to social equity applicants and do not have a defined cap. In Illinois, the cap for transporters was equally removed, and each applicant who scores above 75% will receive a license.
These types of licenses are now more valuable than ever before for two reasons. The first reason is that regulators are keener to award delivery and transporter licenses than other types. Secondly, customers now prefer home delivery over shopping in stores due to COVID-19. With more people clocked out during these times, you have far more opportunities and far fewer competitors during application processes. Use this time to truly develop a strategy for expansion, as the chance might not come so quickly again.
As a final point, be sure to expand your online presence during this time. Although you may not have the capacity to reflect your company’s personality and value through quick in-store transactions, you can use social media to encourage product reviews, social interactions, and recommendations. Invest in marketing through social media platforms. Platforms such as TikTok have helped form communities of like-minded individuals. Use platforms such as that to highlight your company’s personality and values, avoid being “salesy” and focus more on being funny, entertaining and just alive. Character adds value to your business.
People want to laugh, to feel safe and they want to live. Create social interactions and immersion and always prioritize being honest and transparent with your customers. This final point stands as equally as important as the rest of the considerations highlighted throughout this article. Stay nimble, stay active and stay alert! Do not view the chaos behind this pandemic as a pit, and instead see it as a ladder. Track down opportunities, do not be afraid of change, and, more importantly, do not wait for an answer to COVID-19, be the answer.
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