Employee retention: how to keep your cannabis retail staff happy

What makes one dispensary stand out in the eyes of an employee when lots of them sell the same brands and products? It’s pretty simple. Besides pay and benefits, your employees want to feel valued. There are several ways to make the experience more exciting and transformative. Think of your staff as aspiring cannabis sommeliers who want to curate an experience for the customer. Your team could provide the word-of-mouth promotion your store needs if you start with a structure that promotes company values and upward momentum.

Here are some steps management can take to keep their staff satisfied:

  • Clearly define your company’s core values
  • Reward those who go above and beyond
  • Maintain a communicative culture
  • Offer ongoing education and contests for your budtenders
  • Keep it fun and creative
  • Organize farm tours and vendor meet and greets
  • Offer samples and benefits
  • Implement an HR Department

Clearly define your company’s core values

Creating a healthy work environment in which people can truly thrive is the end goal. In 2021, however, this encompasses many global issues. Equality, equity, and stances on social issues—for example—are coming to the forefront. Especially in a new and blossoming industry like cannabis, it is crucial to address these topics among your community thoughtfully. In fact, studies indicate that employees are more likely to consider taking a pay cut if the prospective business they work for exhibits a culture that aligns with their own.

A study by Lexington Law determined that passion is the primary driver for choosing a job. The study goes on to state:

“The results of this study speak loud and clear: people follow a career in line with their passions and value things like company culture, benefits, and growth opportunities over salary when choosing a new job.”

Besides a mutual love for cannabis, prospective employees want to know your company is expressing specific standards that they adhere to. For example, Mr. Nice Guy is a chain of dispensaries in California and Oregon that has clearly defined their values and actively gives back to their community. Their mantra includes:

Create an environment of honesty and transparency.
Act with integrity and never compromise.
Show love to every Mr. Nice Guy customer.
Enrich our communities. Give back.
Advocate for the planet.

And each location follows through on these values in different ways. Some branches are known to volunteer at local soup kitchens and organize food drives. They even highlight equal pay and social equity directly on their website. Mr. Nice Guy is a company whose values can be seen and appreciated within the community.

Reward those who go above and beyond

Employees that go beyond the criteria of a budtender or product specialist want to be acknowledged when they take on additional responsibilities that aren’t part of their original job description. A good employee just wants simple recognition if they reorganized the inventory, made a stock list for the purchaser or supervisor, or pulled an item with an old harvest date from the floor. They may be putting the extra effort in to be considered for a promotion, but sometimes with the flux of the industry, they just have to keep things moving. Reward those who go above and beyond with tasty lunch incentives, verbal acknowledgments, traveling MVP trophies, and eventually promotions.

Maintain a communicative culture

Although your employees may be balancing multiple responsibilities, your store should run cohesively when there is an open and respectful communication culture. Follow up with one another, as you would with a medical customer waiting for a particular product to come in stock. When things are busy, keep a checklist or use an online tool to keep all employees clear on the day's top priorities so nothing slips through the cracks or creates tension. Employees that feel the solutions are growing and evolving with the work are more likely to feel content in their position.

Offer ongoing education and contests for your budtenders

Budtender education is vital to cannabis as a movement. There is so much historical misinformation that has led to a misconception of cannabis. Teach your budtenders so they can relay the information to their customers. You want your customers to trust your budtenders in regards to the product. Although a lot of cannabis consumption varies by individual body chemistry, a true cannabis enthusiast can still teach your customer how to pick a product that agrees with them.

Sources for budtender education can include books (made available to employees during downtime at the store or for “rent” to read at home), scientific research, informational pamphlets (directly from the brands you sell), industry e-newsletters that you can recommend employees sign up for, and online courses. Utilize all the resources available to you to keep your budtender feeling passionate about the product.

Contests within your dispensary can incentivize your staff to work faster and upsell more often. POS analytics can help you track sales for these contests, as well as your Dutchie Analytics. Every game should have a tangible reward; for example, a gift card to a local glass shop, a vaping device or battery, or some brand swag. Make the prize the result of an attainable but significant sales goal. Your revenue will spike, and the commitment to that featured contest brand will follow naturally.

Keep it fun and creative

High Times is famous for its Cannabis Cup contest that evaluates the top cannabis products of the year. To further budtender interaction and culture, you could set up your own “cannabis contest” with limits to prevent your staff from consuming too much. You could even keep it within the realms of CBD products to ensure restraints are in place and no one is trying to “out smoke” the other. You could even have a cannabis-specific craft contest to keep them entertained and keep the employee culture thriving.

Organize farm tours and vendor meet and greets

Continue the fun with vendor meet and greets. These can be customer-facing and scheduled during a product pop-up, or they can be exclusively for staff.

The unique thing about cannabis is that not all two products are alike. To get to know the product, you should get to know the wholesalers. In a newly competitive market, the brands that make the product know best about the processing decisions they made along the way and why.

Seeing the product in its natural environment is another step towards keeping your budtenders engaged. Most brands offer limited farm tours for those with a marijuana license or handler permit. You can schedule a staff “field trip” to a farm or hydroponic grow and let them see the plant in all stages of the process. These easy-to-organize solutions can keep your staff passionate about the product and eager to learn more.

Offer samples and benefits

The average budtender considers sample products a benefit. Samples tend to come from vendors who want feedback on a new product or a wholesaler trying to get their product into a new store. One of the most exciting things about being a budtender is testing the product as homework. They get to reflect upon their expertise with the product and tell customers about the results from their first-hand experience. Samples are an excellent incentive for budtenders and a reliable tool for your business model.

Unfortunately, samples are not available to budtenders in Canada due to legal restrictions. Instead, they can purchase products at an “employee price” or discounted rate.

Some dispensaries are fortunate enough to offer additional benefits, including AAA for your delivery drivers, Roth IRAs, and one of the most coveted benefits among employees of all ages—health insurance. If your business budget doesn’t allow for this, consider offering employees Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs). The business owner can create a yearly budget cap rather than paying regular premiums.

Implement an HR Department

Consider structuring your business like a typical retail store because employees should have a representative to advocate for their needs. Implementing a Human Resources Department, even for smaller dispensaries, can establish autonomy among individuals. Since compliance is a crucial metric to operate a cannabis business legally, you as an owner should consider appointing a person in charge of interpersonal safety and employment law compliance. You should make it a point to set clear boundaries because there is no space for bias or harassment in cannabis. Resources for small businesses can help shape your overall HR strategy.

In summary

Overall, your employee wants to know they are cared for through your values, interactive education components, and benefits. All these offerings create a well-rounded experience for your budtenders. Solely receiving samples is cool, but the novelty wears off. Keep your employees passionate about cannabis and eager to evolve with the industry. If you manage to achieve this, your store will run smoothly, and your customers will notice. When the employees thrive, the customers can sense it, and the shopping experience becomes more positive and prosperous for all.

Kat Kuchtjak

Kat Kuchtjak

Bend, OR