After cannabis businesses were deemed essential in nearly every state in which vertically integrated multistate operator Curaleaf operates, VP of Retail Chris Melillo felt a greater responsibility to create a safe environment for the company’s patients, customers and employees.
“Everybody’s going through a lot right now,” Melillo tells Cannabis Business Times. “None of us have a roadmap or a game plan of how to address this. We’re all leaning on courageous leadership and … experience from crisis management in the past, and really just trying to absorb that responsibility, calm your team and be there for your patients.”
Curaleaf operates 54 dispensaries across 17 U.S. states and has maintained strict compliance with each jurisdiction’s sanitation and social distancing requirements. The company has set new SOPs to adjust to these uncertain times, but Melillo says making a standard, one-size-fits-all policy across all its operations has been difficult.
“You’re really over-indexing and getting pretty granular state by state to make sure that the changes that you make apply to all,” he says.
The company’s internal SOPs are designed to exceed each state’s minimum requirements, Melillo says, and Curaleaf’s management teams have been instructed to ensure that the company’s cleaning standards are followed in each of its facilities.
Beyond that, the company has remained flexible so it can adapt to everchanging coronavirus-related guidance on a state-by-state basis.
For example, when Massachusetts deemed medical cannabis businesses as essential but halted adult-use sales, Curaleaf became unable to serve customers who may have been accessing cannabis for medical purposes in the adult-use market.
“We now have limited ability to serve that customer,” Melillo says. “That has been a really hard challenge in Massachusetts. They’ve closed some of our stores.”
Another challenging market has been Nevada, which has mandated that all cannabis dispensaries must be delivery-only during this time. In that market, Curaleaf essentially launched a delivery service in a weekend to maintain a retail connection with its customers.
“We’re trying not to furlough people, so what we did is we took our internal staff from inside the store and said, ‘Guys, your job is changing. If you choose to do this job, you’re going to be delivery now,’” Melillo says.
To make the switch, Curaleaf’s Nevada staff had to install lockboxes in vehicles and get them certified for delivery, as well as set policies for mobile ordering. Although the company already had an online ordering system, it was supported with additional bandwidth to accommodate the increased demand.
“You can imagine setting up a completely online business, [and] then adding a delivery service with internal employees, training them quickly and getting it all underway in 72 hours,” Melillo says. “I think we went down with no sales for three days, maybe four, to get everybody up and running. … I’m shocked at how quickly we got them up and running while operating in other states.”
Outside of Nevada, Curaleaf is now using Waitlist Me, an application that allows the company to text customers when their order is ready in an effort to manage dispensary traffic.
“We’re communicating with our customers to space out our crowds for social distancing, and no one has to wait outside for an hour to [pick up] an order,” Melillo says. “We have complete control to disperse the crowd and create safety for our customers as well as our employees.”
Curaleaf has also dedicated the first hour of the day to seniors at its retail locations and has seen a shift in sales trends. For example, some customers who had been purchasing flower have transitioned to edibles or vapes for a more discreet option while riding out the quarantine, Melillo says.
A Learning Opportunity
Melillo has learned plenty of lessons throughout this process, but one stands out to him as the most important: communicate more.
With state regulations and company policies changing almost daily, communication is the key to keeping operations running smoothly, but that’s only part of the equation, Melillo says.
“We are an essential business and we need to be open for our clients,” he says. “You have to teach your employees what that means.”
Robust leadership is also critical, Melillo adds, and that includes not only communicating effectively, but also being an active listener.
“Get the feedback when you try things,” he says. “You have to listen to what’s working and what’s not.”
When implementing a new service, such as curbside pickup, Curaleaf launches it in a few markets first before rolling it out to all its markets in order to trial the changes on a smaller scale.
The COVID-19 crisis has also highlighted the fact that many technological innovations simply don’t apply to the cannabis industry, Melillo adds.
“You can’t use credit cards in our industry, but if you could, that would alleviate a lot of the pressures,” he says. “We’re still doing delivery where we need to pick up cash, or curbside [pickup where] we have to deal with cash out on the curb. This is an evolving time for us, but [if there is] a technology solution that a lot of the world is using but we can’t, you’ve got to create workarounds.”
Finally, Melillo is taking this as an opportunity to show gratitude.
“Thank your team … [and] buy coffee, buy donuts—whatever you can to show gratitude,” he says. “Understand what they’re going through and then thank them for what they’re doing while they’re going through it. Not enough can be said about how we treat our retail teams, grow teams and manufacturing teams. It’s all about taking a moment, while the whole business is shifting around us and we’re adapting to that shift. … It’s just understanding who’s doing all the work. We’re all in this together, and we need to show a little bit of gratitude."