`High demand': Business quickly reignites for Berkshire cannabis shops

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The adult recreational cannabis market is back in bloom.

Now that they have reopened to pent-up demand, local retail cannabis stores are still feeling their way through new COVID-19 guidelines and pivoting quickly to adjust the work flow for better efficiencies and to improve customer service.

Berkshire County marijuana shops, which were forced to halt recreational sales in mid-March as part of the pandemic lockdown, were allowed to reopen May 25 for curbside pickup. And as of Monday, they were permitted to allow customers into the stores — with proper distancing and face coverings — under the governor's phase-two reopening plan.

Even so, several stores have found that the curbside system is working so well, and many are still hesitant to go inside stores yet, so they are keeping the curbside system for now.

After the initial rush of sales during those first few days after reopening in May, business has continued to be brisk, though not quite up to pre-pandemic levels.

"We're certainly seeing high volume and high demand," said Thomas Winstanley, director of marketing for Theory Wellness in Great Barrington. "The demand [on the first day of reopening] was nothing we've ever seen before and it came with a whole new host of challenges."

Theory Wellness has set up a tent outside the store where customers can pay for their preordered products before moving on to a pickup window.

"We're going to keep the tent model for the time being," Winstanley said, "and only allow customers inside if they can only pay in cash."

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Not all stores are keeping the shops off limits. At Berkshire Roots in Pittsfield, for example, the store has opened to customer traffic inside, with proper precautions for distancing and face coverings.

The shops had five days' notice to make adjustments to allow for secure, curbside sales and pickups, including software to allow for online booking of appointments, which didn't yet exist. On that first day, many computer systems crashed and they had to improvise, in the midst of one of their busiest days ever.

"On that second day, we were able to dial it in," said Sean Curley, chief marketing officer for Canna Provisions in Lee. Now, after a few more adjustments, "We have a pretty smooth system now. We can't process as many sales as quickly as before, but we're getting better at it."

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Canna Provisions has rented parking space at other nearby businesses to hold any overflow past the 10 spaces they have for cars to line up at the store, Curley said. He noted that they have been averaging 400 to 500 customers every day since reopening.

Canna hasn't opened to in-store sales yet, but it is tweaking operating procedures to allow that in the next week or two, he noted.

The cannabis business was already heavily regulated, and new changes to those regulations were not uncommon. So, Curley said, the shops have become accustomed to rules that forced workflow changes and shifts in how the product and sales were handled. The new requirements since the pandemic actually resulted in more labor hours than before. Part of it is coordinating the customer traffic between the shop and the three parking lots it has rented for overflow parking.

"We were sort of set up for this, so it probably wasn't as difficult as it was for some other types of businesses," Curley said.

But mostly, shop owners and employees are glad to be back to work.

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"It's certainly good to be open and get our team back together," noted Brendan McKee, partner and chief financial officer of Silver Therapeutics in Williamstown. "Everyone is stepping up in a really big way and happy to be serving the people we care about."

Silver has decided to keep the curbside sales process in place, opting to forgo the in-store experience for now.

"The team is really happy with it, and the customers really love it," McKee said. "So we're going to keep things as they are for now. We'll open the shop as soon as we think it's safe for our team and the people that we serve. There's no harm in being patient with this [pandemic]."

For the most part, the shops are taking orders online, and setting up appointments for the client to come by and pay — cannabis shops shops are not allowed to take money online — for their order and pick it up. Some shops do the transaction with the customer in the car, others allow the customer to park, pay under a tent outside the store and pick up the order. So before opening time, the team has all the orders for the day and can package it all up before customers start arriving.

McKee said Silver had roughly 450 customers the first day, though it has leveled out a bit since then. The team of 15 staff members all came back, although some still felt uneasy being out in the midst of a pandemic, so they've been able to work the phones at home.

"We're not doing as much business as last week," he said, "but we're still real busy and we're still doing great."

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.


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