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In the wake of COVID-19, many cannabis dispensaries have been grappling with how to keep their doors open and their lights on. Physical shops may have reduced hours and limits on the number of customers in the store at a time. Staff must take extra precautions when dealing with the public. Extra sanitation measures are needed.

At the same time, business owners and budtenders alike also worry about health and safety. Some states have deemed cannabis businesses essential, but some might think about closing. Staff may be worried about safety. Customer traffic may also be dwindling, as people practice social distancing.

Depending on the state in which you’re operating, one practical solution might be to take your dispensary online. Here’s how eCommerce could help your dispensary navigate the challenges of the current market.

A Safer Shopping Experience for Everyone

You may feel compelled to keep your physical store open. Even with sanitation measures and restrictions, staying open puts both your customers and your team members at risk.

It’s these increased risks that are behind orders to close, like the one issued by Colorado in late March. Dispensaries can offer drive-thru or curbside pick-up options. Otherwise, they needed to close their doors to the public.

Orders to close stores can create an ethical conundrum. In some places, cannabis dispensaries have been deemed essential, much like pharmacies. Medical marijuana patients in many states rely on dispensaries to access their medicine. If you suddenly close up shop, you’d be leaving these vulnerable people in the lurch.

These are the very people who may be self-isolating due to increased susceptibility. Cancer patients may be at increased risk of contracting COVID-19, so they need to limit their exposure. At the same time, they need their medication to manage pain and other symptoms.

Drive-thrus, curbside pickup, and telephone orders can help people access the medicine they need. An online shopping option could also solve the problem. At-risk patients can shop from the comfort of their homes. Your team can pick and pack orders in a safer environment that’s closed to the public. This limits the number of people patients come into contact with. It also allows them to practice enhanced social distancing and better sanitation.

A delivery option helps you get product to your customers while limiting risk. Your delivery drivers may be able to leave packages on customer’s porches, at their front doors, or even pass parcels to them from the car.

Can Every Dispensary Go Online?

It should be clear that online shopping and home delivery provides increased safety during this uncertain time. That said, there may be some barriers to getting your business online.

If you’re running a CBD-only shop, you may not encounter too much trouble. Changes to federal legislation in 2018 made hemp-derived CBD products legal nationwide. That means CBD products can be sold online and shipped virtually anywhere. Sales of peripherals like papers, rollers, and bongs are also legal.

For dispensary owners who sell both CBD products and products containing THC, the story may be quite different. Not every state allows for online cannabis shops or delivery. In Alaska, for example, the customer must be physically present to make a purchase. That means online sales or telephone orders are not an option.

In Colorado, you can likely sell online. If you plan to deliver, though, you’ll need to have a delivery license. If you don’t already have one, you probably won’t be able to get one in short order.

Other barriers include the issue of shipping. A Colorado-based dispensary might try to get around a lack of delivery license by using a courier service. Federal regulations make it illegal to use these services to ship cannabis anywhere.

Banking regulations have also posed a problem for cannabis dispensaries. Credit card companies often refuse to offer merchant services. That means many cannabis businesses can’t accept credit card payments. That’s true in the storefront. It goes doubly online, where credit card companies are more vigilant about fraud.

Platforms like Paypal and Stripe don’t even allow cannabis-adjacent businesses to accept online payments. As a result, the majority of dispensaries have been stuck in a cash-only business model. That, in turn, limits their ability to use eCommerce.

It’s still possible to set up an online store where customers can make their orders. Typically, these orders are for pick-up at the store. If there is a delivery option, then the customer is often asked to pay in cash. While this is still possible in a pandemic situation, it does still require contact. Cash can harbor viruses, raising safety concerns. Some retailers have limited cash payments over the risk of virus transmission.

What’s a Dispensary to Do?

Offering home delivery for cannabis customers is still a good option, even with the difficulty of accepting payments.

Other options are emerging, such as CanPay. The network connects financial institutions, merchants, and customers. A financial institution applies for an account. A merchant with an account at that institution can then accept payments from a client with a CanPay account.

That’s quite a few steps to undertake. Cannabis dispensary owners might want to check if their financial institution is part of the network. They’d then need to encourage their customers to sign up for accounts.

Some online services connect dispensaries and consumers via the web. Still, payments are collected upon delivery.

These options are still worth exploring, both during the pandemic and for afterward. The pandemic will no doubt have an impact on people’s behavior for some time to come. Many customers already appreciate the increased ease of shopping online.

There’s also some suggestion that federal rules may be changing. Regulations around cannabis have gone on the backburner for the time being, but the House indicated the cannabis landscape will shift yet again.

The passage of the SAFE Banking Act in late 2019 may ease payment issues. A federal recommendation for the descheduling of cannabis suggests a wider market could be opening up soon. Cannabis dispensaries with an online presence will be better prepared for a national market.

Platforms Built for Cannabis eCommerce

Many cannabis dispensaries do have an existing web presence. Some have opted not to offer eCommerce. Others have what experts call “near-eCommerce.” Without the ability to accept online payments, true eCommerce is still a few steps away.

That hasn’t stopped software designers from creating platforms tailored to the industry. Some offer freeware that integrates with your existing website. Your customers can place orders with you directly. You can then offer them pick-up or delivery options, at your discretion.

Green Marimba is another platform, based out of Colorado. The company hosts dispensary websites. It also offers a range of tools that let you better manage every part of your business. With the platform, you can manage vendors and inventory, as well as your customer relationships.

Finally, you might consider e-tail giant Shopify. The platform is used by thousands of businesses, in part because it’s incredibly user-friendly. Shopify is also primed for great SEO, which is another reason it’s become one of the top picks for online merchants. As a Canadian company, Shopify entered the marijuana market when its home country legalized in 2018, and it even hosts some of the government-run cannabis shops. 

Getting Set Up

Time is of the essence in the current market, yet eCommerce should be something you think carefully about. If done right, you could be working toward a strong eCommerce business that lasts long after the pandemic fades.

Be sure to pick a platform that accepts cannabis businesses. If you have a website, then you should look at an eCommerce platform that integrates with what you’re already using.

Next, you’ll need to list your products online. You’ll need to include prices, sizes, and descriptions of each product.

Most eCommerce platforms make it easy to build a catalog of listings. The real work is usually gathering and inputting  the information. It can take time to fully digitize your product offerings, though. A good strategy is to focus on a few products to get up and running. Narrow down the list by picking high-margin items or your top sellers. Then you work on crafting great copy for this select list. Photos play a key role in making sales, so don’t be afraid to invest in good images.

Another approach is to choose items that you know will fit into standard shipping packaging. This makes it easier for you to provide accurate shipping costs to your customers from the get-go.

Finally, make any online payment options clear and set up your merchant account to accept those payments.

If online payment isn’t an option for you, be sure to outline the customer’s options for delivery or pick-up. Finally, be sure to instruct customers about delivery and pick-up requirements.

You’ll also want to state policies, such as refund and return policies. What happens if a customer can’t pick-up their order or meet the delivery driver? 

Keep local laws in mind as well. In states like California, delivery drivers need to check the recipient’s ID before they can turn over the package. Accurate shipping information is crucial, since the customer must be home to receive the delivery.Check local rules about delivery licensing and online sales.

Uncertain Times Call for Creative Solutions

Cannabis dispensaries still have options to keep serving the customers who rely on them. At the same time, they can take steps to reduce risks and maintain high levels of safety.

Drive-thrus, curbside pick-up, telephone orders, and eCommerce solutions may be available. Be sure to check the rules in your local area and your state. Don’t be afraid to ask lawmakers to work with you to find better solutions for your business and your customers. 

Finally, make sure you communicate what you’re doing to your customers. A COVID-19 response page on your website and updated hours on your Google My Business profile go a long way toward helping your customers get what they need. Be sure to keep the information up to date as the situation and your response continue to evolve.

The right decisions now can help you weather the current challenges presented by COVID-19. They could also be key to building a more robust business to serve your customers better in the future as well.

Need help implementing an eCommerce solution or optimizing your current online store? Get in touch with us. We can help you determine the best strategy for leveraging online solutions.

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