10 things you'll need to open a successful dispensary

Published May 29, 2021 11:00 a.m. ET
iStock / MysteryShot

Green businesses are blossoming and thriving as the brand new legal cannabis industry takes hold. Demand is high, competition is fair, and the payoff for successfully running a cannabis store is lucrative. It sounds like a dream come true, as this is the perfect environment for innovative entrepreneurs to shine, but it’s not quite as easy as you might think to get a dispensary up and off the ground. Figuring out how to start a business can be a complicated matter, especially when it’s one that touches a highly regulated plant like cannabis which is why the first step should always be to make a base plan.

Opening a cannabis store is often a long, arduous process, and it really helps to know where to start. This checklist might not include every little thing that you’ll want, but it does cover all of the essential things you’ll need. So if becoming the hot new dispensary location on the scene is what you hope to achieve, then you’ll definitely want to check them out.

1. The perfect spot

This bustling new market still has plenty of room for players, both big and small. Still, you’ll want to be selective in settling on a physical location for a cannabis store. Closest to home might offer the best commute, but a busy corner on the other side of town, a fair distance away from any other dispensaries is probably a much better business decision. Think outside the box because almost every cannabis store owner would love to be in downtown Toronto, but when it comes right down to it, a smaller town with fewer residents might be a better location choice, especially if there is no local competition in the area.

You’ll want to be seen by as many potential consumers as possible without forcing them to fight for parking or have a hard time finding you on a bumper-to-bumper traffic-filled main street. The ideal spot should boast ample parking spaces, room for product, storage, and after all of that, it needs to be affordable. Though there is plenty of money to be made running dispensaries, you don’t want to hand over a huge chunk of the profits just for rent. Of course, it also helps if you feel a connection to space, but in the end, functionality and affordability are what really matter.

2. Licences

No matter what type of businesses it is that you’d like to open, you will need permits and licenses to function legally, and a cannabis store is no different. In fact, it can actually be even more complicated depending on where you live, as some regions require both a regular business license as well as additional licensing for certain types of pot products. Of course, some areas aren’t so extensive, but the appropriate licensing will all need to be applied and paid for long before you’ll ever be able to open up to the public, and some of them come at a high cost that might require significant saving or budgeting on your part, so the sooner you know about them, the better.

3. Knowledge surrounding regulatory requirements

Technically, licensing is a regulatory requirement, but it’s also one of the only regulations that most people realize exist, while there are numerous rules that determine how you may conduct business along the way, like for example, some regions demand a certain number of employees to cover essential roles, while others might severely limit the number of specific types of pot products that can be sold to an individual. All of this will make or break potential revenue streams, which is why it’s important to get this figured out as soon as possible.

4. An influential brand identity

As long as you pick a good location, you should guarantee yourself a steady stream of customers. However, if you want to draw in as many people as possible, then you’re going to need to stand out, and most cannabis stores develop a brand identity to do just that. Your brand can be anything you want it to be, but it should be something that you have a true connection with so that it feels real. It helps to focus on things that most consumers would agree with, like trust, modern design, or some other appealing feature. A catchy name can also be worth its weight in gold. Branding is the whole package, from the advertisements you run to the products you’re going to carry, so take your time with this one.

5. Security

Even before you open up shop, you’re likely going to be filling the premises with products and materials that cost quite a bit of money, and though you might not be in businesses yet, you still run the risk of theft. Once your cannabis store is in full operation, it will be filled to the max with things like cash and expensive cannabis goods, which are appealing to those who are looking for a fast score. This is why so many dispensaries are reporting a large influx of thefts, as criminals know exactly what’s likely to be inside, so you’re going to want to invest in some protection.

When it comes to security, there are many different options to consider, and all of them will come at a price, so it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of what’s available to you before subscribing or making any major investments. A must-have for every cannabis store is a good quality camera and alarm system, in the event you’re targeted, you can at least hold those responsible accountable. However, most go the extra mile by hiring security guards, requiring memberships for patrons, and in some cases, even metal detectors at the door, which can alert all those inside if someone who is armed tried to enter the location. There is no right or wrong way to do this, but it is an essential step.

6. Displays and shelving

Pot products aren’t your typical store good, so while some shops might get away with old metal brackets shelves like what you’d expect in a grocery store, those probably aren’t going to go over very well here because they don’t allow for sufficient lighting or secure viewing. Some regions expect all cannabis store products to sit behind lock and key, and those that don’t still need to be well seen, which requires really good lighting. Regular wall shelves might not do it, but big glass display cases complete with lights will take care of all of that in one go, and they look great! Unfortunately, they are also more expensive, so don’t forget to price them out as part of your business plan.

7. Cannabis friendly banking

Even if you’re fortunate enough to live in a country like Canada where cannabis is federally legal, you might find that you’re hard-pressed to locate a financial institution that is willing to offer all of the services you need to a business that’s associated with the green. That’s right, even with the law on your side, most banks are hesitant to work in partnership with a cannabis store, so it might take some shopping around to find the one that will work for you. Some won’t take daily deposits, while most still refuse to offer insurance or lines of credit, both of which are essential for business owners.

8. Knowledgable employees

Once you’ve got a cannabis store stocked with all of the products and displays you need to run a proper business, consumers will eventually make their way to you, but what they do once they arrive will heavily depend on the employees on staff. Nervous customers might need help with things like recommendations or questions, and they’re going to expect that those who are working to serve them know, at the very least, the basics of the products they’re selling. This isn’t necessary for all industries, but in cannabis, it is pertinent, otherwise, you’ll lose a lot of money. So remember, you’re going to need knowledgeable staff which might cost more to employ than the average joe, but it’s worth it.

9. Know what your consumers want

What do cannabis enthusiasts really want, and which products will you have to sell to get them to part with more of their hard-earned money? If you can’t answer both of these questions with confidence, then you’re likely nowhere near ready to run a whole dispensary. This is a skill that doesn’t require specialized education, only a familiarity with the culture which can come through research, talking to real everyday people, and personal experience. Preferably, all of the above if you want to shine amongst the competition.

10. Tools

Digital scales, bags, a cash register, scanners, and even computers are all essential tools for every cannabis store, and they aren’t the only ones that can come in handy. Most places with legal weed heavily restrict what can be sold or offered through these coveted locations, which is why you’ll have to get crafty to make some extra dough. One way that many dispensaries have done this is by offering access to tools for consumers. Offering pay-per-use access to things like a rosin press or butter maker could make a world of difference for both those who visit your establishment and your bottom line.

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