Considered an Essential Business, Cannabis Sales Surge as Consumers Hunker Down

Shelter-at-home rules have translated to triple-digit jumps in cannabis buying

Cannabis retailers are navigating the coronavirus landscape. Weedmaps
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Key insights:

It’s not 4/20 yet, but tell that to cannabis buyers around the country, who have pushed sales of bud, edibles and THC-laced tinctures to historic levels in recent days.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, April 20, 2019, was the high-water mark for legal cannabis sales in the U.S., with consumers spending millions of dollars to celebrate the unofficial weed holiday that has sometimes been compared to Black Friday.

Those records have been shattered, according to anecdotal and data-backed evidence from industry sources who report double- and triple-digit increases in sales from Maryland to Illinois to the Pacific Northwest in the wake of shelter-at-home rules.

“There were massive spikes in the last week,” said Matt Singer, co-founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based delivery platform TOKR, whose business leaped 278% recently and saw cart sizes triple. “People were buying as much weed as they could, and retailers were scrambling to figure out how to navigate this new reality.”

Switching to ‘contactless’ sales

Dispensaries and cannabis brands, while trying to keep up with the unprecedented pace, have been pivoting quickly to delivery, curbside pickup and online ordering to comply with social distancing mandates. They’re experimenting with new marketing approaches, like launching their own podcasts, while offering freebies and touting their stringent safety measures on social media.

Most cannabis-friendly states have included dispensaries in the “essential business” category, along with pharmacies and supermarkets. However, some are allowing only medical sales, not adult-use or so-called “recreational” sales. Regulators in Pennsylvania have grouped medical cannabis providers in with other “life-sustaining” services.

Many state and local officials have relaxed laws to help cannapreneurs hire much-needed staff and, for the first time in some areas, offer “contactless” delivery. New rules are also opening the door for telemedicine (prescriptions without an in-person doctor visit) and increasing purchase limits.

Weedmaps, an online cannabis directory, logged more orders on March 20 than at any other point in its history, accounting for a 236% spike over April 20 in 2019, previously the industry’s biggest buying day.

Weedmaps

There’s been a 74% increase in unique users on the digital platform in March, compared to February, with the weekend of Mar. 20 showing a 191% increase in orders over the previous weekend. There was a 207% leap in orders for the week of March 16 compared to the previous week, according to the company’s data.

Weedmaps has developed a state-by-state cannabis index so consumers can find out which dispensaries are operating in their area and how they can buy product.

A new green rush, fueled by coronavirus

The coronavirus-driven green rush has meant more sales overall and bigger hauls for individual buyers.

Average pre-pandemic orders at the startup TOKR were already above the industry norm, Singer says, at $121 (versus the typical $85). Those numbers increased to $285 in mid-March, he says, and that’s before a single customer in Beverly Hills busted the curve, buying $1,200 worth of Papa & Barkley tinctures in one day.

From a product perspective, Singer and others have seen significant jumps in edible sales, while flower remains the most popular item. Vapes, already mired in controversy and lagging in sales, have taken another hit, possibly because of the respiratory ailments associated with COVID-19.

A dispensary called 99 High Tide in the tony Malibu section of L.A. has logged two to three times its normal traffic since work-from-home and other social distancing directives have been in place.

99 High Tide

“We had our biggest week ever with hundreds of people a day, online ordering was constant and our phones were ringing off the hook,” said Yvonne DeLaRosa Green, CEO and co-founder of 99 High Tide. “We’re still getting new clients every day.”

The retailer, which had bulked up its supplies in anticipation of the crisis, put safety precautions in place (customers had to stand 8 feet apart, and the location was sanitized frequently) while encouraging its shoppers to opt for delivery. Owners added online consultations, accelerated a website revamp and bulked up their social media presence, using in-house cannabis consultants, called Mermaids, as their education and influencer front line.

In addition to producing daily videos for its site, 99 High Tide will debut its own podcast with thought leaders, said Sam Boyer, CMO. The dispensary, the only business of its kind in the high-rent celebrity haven, will also increase its informational blog postings and work with digital media companies to spread its message.

And for 4/20, 99 High Tide plans a “virtual smoke-in.” Also in the works is a CBD-based hand sanitizer.

Already battered, cannabis companies are ‘under a microscope’

Kim Lundin, executive director of the Oregon Cannabis Association, says the industry is “under a microscope” more than others that continue to operate. “There’s a higher level of scrutiny, and cannabis companies have been very proactive in following best practices,” she noted. “The goal is to keep our employees and customers safe.”

Cannabis advocates take it as a good sign that states have deemed the industry “essential,” giving it a new level of legitimacy.

“That’s a huge step forward for the cannabis industry,” DeLaRosa Green said. “You can’t walk that back. That’s one wonderful thing to come out of this very scary situation.”

Though sales are robust, cannapreneurs have several lingering concerns about their status in the national economy. They’re still federally illegal, meaning they would not qualify for any disaster relief under the Small Business Administration bailouts. And they continue to be excluded from the banking system, which makes them cash-only. (Being able to use credit cards would help in contactless transactions).

“We wish people didn’t have to trade cash back and forth at a time like this. [Access to banks] “would provide us another good safety measure.”
Kim Lundin, executive director, Oregon Cannabis Association

“We wish people didn’t have to trade cash back and forth at a time like this,” Lundin said. Access to banks “would provide us another good safety measure.”

Some dispensaries—those not equipped for online orders or set up for delivery—have had to shutter, adding to the country’s unemployment pool.

But the stepped-up demand may help turn around the industry’s financial future (Nasdaq.com said that publicly traded cannabis companies have suffered since early 2019 because they’re “heavily indebted, cash poor and richly valued”). Analysts are predicting a better picture for the year’s second half, with giants like Canopy Growth showing a 25% increase in stock price since the crisis buying spree and Tilray shares jumping 40%.

Hold the stoner cliches

With 4/20 on the horizon and no end yet in sight to self-quarantining as the new normal, cannabis sources expect sales to stay healthy. And with mounting job loss, financial hardships and cabin fever, in addition to serious medical illnesses, there are plenty of reasons to turn to cannabis.

A study from Oasis Intelligence found that 56% of those polled say that cannabis is an important part of their lives, and 85% are using it at least in part for medical and wellness reasons rather than strictly recreational purposes. Anxiety and stress relief are the most common wellness reasons that people list for using cannabis (40%), followed by sleep (30%) and depression (28%).

The current skyrocketing demand didn’t surprise the study’s authors, who said, “Just as people know they’ll be hungry, so they stock up on frozen pizzas, they know they’re going to be anxious, depressed and not sleeping well, so they stock up on cannabis.”


@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.
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