Long lineups curling along street corners were seen at select Ottawa storefronts on Monday, heralding the arrival of a new type of retailer in the city: legal, privately operated retail cannabis stores.
"It's going to save me a lot of time," said Carmel Berlinguette, outside of Fire & Flower cannabis shop in the ByWard Market. "It's a lot cheaper, too, because I won't have the delivery costs."
Three retail cannabis stores are now open in Ottawa: Hobo Recreational Cannabis Store on Bank Street, Superette on Wellington Street West and Fire & Flower on York Street.
Fire & Flower said it recorded more than $50,000 in sales at its ByWard Market location on opening day. The Alberta-based cannabis retailer partnered with two winners of Ontario’s retail cannabis licence lottery to open the Ottawa store.
“Partnering with Fire & Flower allowed us to leverage their expertise and catapult us to where we would not have otherwise been able to get to in three months,” said Michael Patterson, the licence-holder for Fire & Flower York Street Cannabis.
Inside Fire & Flower, a tactile “strain wall” was set up to help customers choose the ideal type of cannabis for their desired experience. At the back, a large space is open for having conversations with retail associates and smelling product.
For those who already have an idea of what they want, a self-service kiosk at the entrance allows customers to key in an order and then collect their purchase from an attendant, bypassing the lineup.
While Ottawa might have only three retail cannabis storefronts, they still face competition from multiple quarters. In addition to the government-run Ontario Cannabis Store – which also controls the inventory for the new private retailers – the new storefronts are also competing against the black market.
Since private pot shops have limited ability to advertise or carry unique products not available at other retailers, they are relying on a compelling store layout and a positive customer service experience for success, says Pat Angove, a B.C.-based cannabis retail instructor at the College of the Rockies.
Customer service is top-of-mind for the Donnelly Group, which entered into a service and licensing agreement to open Hobo Recreational Cannabis Store on Bank Street.
The Donnelly Group is known for its popular pubs and restaurants in Vancouver and Toronto. Hobo is the company’s first foray into the cannabis sector.
“Operating retail cannabis stores is really similar to operating public houses,” said Harrison Stoker, the Donnelly Group’s vice-president of brand and culture. “It’s certainly our intention to operate it very similarly to our pubs.”
Utilizing an open concept with a minimalist design, Hobo’s store invites customers to wander about, peer over products and ask questions.
Bar-like stools are set up to foster conversations with Hobo’s retail associates. There’s even a couch towards the back for lounging.
The two-storey store is divided into an upper floor designed for a leisurely customer experience and a lower level focused on efficiency.
“The idea is to create a really effective funnel to get you in and out really quickly,” said Stoker, referring to the lower-level “to go” counter for customers who know exactly what they want.
Serving customers quickly was definitely an asset on opening day when hordes of Ottawa residents eagerly waited for their turn to step inside one of the city’s first retail dispensaries.
But not everyone is convinced the hype will last.
Brad Poulos, a cannabis and entrepreneurship instructor at Ryerson University, predicts interest in the stores will wane once the novelty wears off, especially as cannabis consumers learn that legal retailers have a limited supply of product.
“I can go to an illegal dispensary and can literally get 50 kinds of edibles,” said Poulos. “How are they going to compete?”
Over on Wellington Street West, the operators of Superette say they aren't worried about the initial rush of buyers petering off as time goes on.
“It comes back to your customer experience,” said Mimi Lam, the CEO and co-founder of Superette, which borrows design elements inspired by 1950s-era diners and more recent convenience stores.
“You’re not going to be able to buy everything on your first trip,” said Lam. “So when you want to come back, let’s make that happen.”