The closing in of the new year is always a good time to take stock of not only where cannabis was in 2018 but also where it’s going in 2019. And with recent dispensary openings in Massachusetts, Michigan moving to adult-use and Ohio finally coming online (as well as any number of intra-state politics too numerous to list), manufacturers and dispensaries should prepare themselves for a new type of customer walking through the door.
While many industry players distinguish between medical and adult use cannabis consumers (and with good reason, as their wants, needs and product usage vary dramatically), the same type of distinction can be made between new or returning cannabis users and mature users.
In survey data collected in support of our 2018 reports, we defined “new” users as those who either started when adult-use legalization went into effect in their home states or who used cannabis when they were younger, stopped but returned once adult-use legalization occurred. Many users of cannabis have been consumers for 20+ years, while others started using when medical markets opened in their states. But these new users, in relatively immature or completely new markets, represent organic growth opportunities for cannabis and ushering them through this new world of products and experiences requires understanding their usage behaviors and patterns.
Stepping Into Cannabis, Not Diving
We estimate that new users as previously defined comprise roughly half of current cannabis users, even in legal adult-use states, according to our 2018 data. While we’ll be looking at these patterns again in 2019, as we suspect another year of usage will illustrate further shifts. That said, of new users, those returning to cannabis are more likely to fall into the 55-64 age range (We covered Boomers and Cannabis in a previous post, linked here). And while new consumers who have no previous usage history is fairly evenly dispersed among age groups, it’s important to take a consumers’ point of view in servicing both groups.
Whether returning or completely new, new cannabis consumers are entering a market that is overflowing with product innovations and marketing messages that are continually in flux. And with many of these customers already having established consumption habits in other categories and for key occasions, for instance alcohol for relaxation and socialization or over the counter sleep aids for sleep assistance, they are tiptoeing their way into cannabis.
Of these new customers, 40% of returning and 45% of completely new consumers use cannabis 1-2 times per month or less. This in contrast to those who have continuously used (16%) and those who started using when medical marijuana became legal (19%).
With such a low usage rate, it’s imperative that any exposure to cannabis be a positive one for these consumers. Ideally, a positive experience is the goal for everybody, but these new and returning customers may be more likely to turn away from cannabis based on a bad experience. They have lived much of their adult lives without cannabis and haven’t integrated it into their daily habits, and a bad experience with a product may dissuade them from coming back.
Getting That Experience Right
Naturally, knowing that a customer wants a good experience is one thing, delivering that good experience is quite another. And while there are many factors that go into a good cannabis experience that fall largely outside of the control of those in cannabis, there are ways to maximize the likelihood that a new user’s experience is a good one.
And it starts with the advice the customer receives from the outset. Returning and completely new customers are 34% more likely than existing customers to rely upon the advice of dispensary associates when deciding on what cannabis product to purchase. Here, asking the right questions are critically important in setting up the customer for a successful experience—how long would they like to feel the effects for, what kind of effects are they looking for, are they experienced in rolling their own, is this for single use or will they consume again soon, are they okay with a delayed effect, etc., etc.
While many conversations in dispensaries occur at the product level, getting an understanding of the context of the usage occasion and the customer’s comfort level leads to the right product, and ultimately the right consumption experience. In our experience, taking on various personas at shops, too often we find that conversations jump right to product. It’s understandable, especially if there is a queue outside, but from the customer’s point of view, it does little to ensure that their wants and needs are being considered.
Renewals and New Calendars
A new year represents more than the opportunity to flip the calendar, it also represents a time to renew to do better. And for those who are going to be seeing a lot of new customers walking through their doors or using their products, it’s important that we renew our efforts to place the customer front and center. It’s important that we recognize that the dispensary and overall current cannabis experience can be an overwhelming one for new customers. From a high security waiting room to a product room experience that can vary in any number of ways (some positive, some negative) to interactions that are as varied as the people who deliver them. A standardized approach is not in keeping with the spirit of cannabis but recognizing that these new customers may require more time upfront is definitely in the DNA.