OPINION: Smarten up! Ontario to launch new educational program for cannabis retailers

Building trust with customers likely easier if person providing the retail experience is knowledgeable and well-equipped to provide guidance

By Olga Chernoloz, Omnica Biotech

February 20, 2019

The Smart Serve Ontario program—the province’s responsible alcohol beverage sales and service training program—now has a cannabis cousin: CannSell.

CannSell, a joint venture between MADD Canada, a national, charitable organization committed to stopping impaired driving, and Canadian-based Lift & Co., a cannabis technology company, is the mandatory training program for Ontario cannabis retailers and staff.

Announced in early February, the four-hour online educational module becomes available Feb. 25. The idea is to ensure that operators lucky enough to have snagged one of the 25 cannabis retail licences awarded in the recent lottery are ready come the Apr. 1 ribbon-cutting.

Similar modules developed by Lift & Co. have already been implemented for cannabis sales force training by the governments of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Education key to leapfrogging stigma

Ontario’s cannabis regulator, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, reports an overarching goal of this program, is to “educate cannabis retail employees on the responsible sale of cannabis, as well as their legal and regulatory obligations.”

That government’s chief concern is keeping the public safe is no surprise, but the heavy focus on retailers’ legal and regulatory obligations should not be at the cost of information that customer truly seeks.

Commenting on a survey released last year by Vividata, a Canadian cross-media and consumer behaviour research firm, Strategy reported that almost the same percentage of current (84) and potential cannabis users (83) said “cannabis providers—namely, retailers and others that will be selling recreational products—should be able to educate consumers on the effect of a specific strain or product, both positive and negative.”

It is essential to remember that a near-century of cannabis prohibition has left a lasting mark on public perception and attitude. General knowledge is lacking while anxieties around the use of cannabis are significant. Knowledge must go beyond merely knowing that staying off the road while under the influence of cannabis is the safest way to go, although not all seem to have grasped that concept.

Deloitte’s 2018 Cannabis Report: A society in transition, an industry ready to bloom notes that 71 percent of current consumers and 69 percent of likely ones consider having staff with strong product knowledge to be key in their brick-and-mortar cannabis store experience. One can only hope retailers realize that relying on mandated basic training as a sole source of consumer education would be unwise. Failing to meet the number one expectation of their prospective customers would, ultimately, hurt business.

So far, the Ontario Cannabis Storehas fulfilled over half a million orders with a rough average of 100,000-plus transactions per month. That figure will likely continue to grow as the number of cannabis “considerers” looking to try newly legal bud—but apprehensive about sharing credit card information online—opt to transact in hard cash at brick-and-mortar retail locations.

As the first legal cannabis stores open their doors in Ontario, the (for now) limited private competition is sure to attract experienced, returning and new customers. As the market stabilizes and the number of physical retail locations grow beyond the initial 25, this will likely change. A true competitive environment will weed out businesses unwilling to commit to building and nourishing lasting relationships—built on trust—with their customer bases. Building that trust may be easier if the person providing the retail experience are knowledgeable and well-equipped to help guide customers on their respective cannabis journeys.

Beyond recreational to medical?

Cannabis retailers may also face a different type of customer—the medical kind. The unique profile of cannabis as both medicinal and recreational product could mean consumers with health-related questions direct them to store staff who are not equipped or allowed to dispense any advice on medicinal use.

While covering the basics for educating legal retail operators, the government seems to turn a blind eye to the fact that healthcare professionals have little to no training on employing cannabis as medicine. To date, no medicalpharmaceutical or nursing school in Ontario and Canada-wide provide formal, evidence-based training on the therapeutic use of cannabis.

An informational vacuum in preparing licensed healthcare providers remains a barrier to harm reduction, ultimately hurting medical cannabis patients and putting a strain on the healthcare system.

Customers representative of the wider community

Legal market customers are not simply consumers, but are also parents, colleagues and neighbours. A healthy culture of responsible consumption will not appear out of thin (even somewhat thicker) air—it requires an open and informed dialogue among all interested parties, including the public.

It is only natural to expect that cannabis retailers could be a source of not only cannabis, but related information. To create positive experience for customers who have various levels of cannabis experience, sales staff needs to be welcoming, patient and, most important, knowledgeable.

A depth and breadth of information would need to be covered, including, among other things, types of available products, ways of consumption, dosing, potential differences in response among individuals and a suitable consumption atmosphere.

Olga Chernoloz, PhD, a specialist in neuropsychopharmacology and founder of Omnica Biotech, which supports the advancement of knowledge in cannabinoid space through an evidence-based approach.

Celine Chang