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September/October 2020 Success Stories

Cultivating Success

Passion, positive outlook, and strong support help Spiritleaf franchisees in Vernon, BC shine

By Jordan Whitehouse 

When Sarah Ballantyne and her husband Carson opened their Spiritleaf location in the north end of Vernon, British Columbia last year, Sarah was doing what many new business owners do: a little bit of everything. Not only was she on the floor of the cannabis retail store welcoming customers, answering questions, organizing shelves, etc., but she was also circling to the back of the store to do things like buy product, complete returns, and figure out pricing. It didn’t last.

“I was doing that for the first six months,” she says, “but I found I couldn’t focus my attention. I was only half there when I was on the floor because the other half of my brain was saying, ‘Oh, I have to buy all of this product.’ Now that I’m doing mostly back of house, I can focus my attention a lot more.”

It helped that she studied human resources in university and therefore knew about how to find the right people for the right job, some of whom are better at front-of-house tasks — like sales — than she is anyway, she says. But it’s also been huge to have such strong support from her fellow Spiritleaf franchisees in B.C., as well as the company’s corporate team, she adds.

“I just love having access to a team who has years and years of retail experience and just that they’re so open,” she says. “I can text Darren [Bondar], our CEO, and he responds within five minutes. We’re all very, very close, and the encouragement and reassurance we give each other is just amazing.”

Since Bondar launched Spiritleaf in March 2017, the retailer has gone on to open 46 locations and counting, most of which are in Western Canada, and has signed more than 100 franchise agreements, making it one of the leading recreational cannabis chains in the country. Spiritleaf was the first cannabis retail business granted membership in the Canadian Franchise Association and the first recreational cannabis company to do an IPO and trade on the Canadian Securities Exchange.

Morning routine

Ballantyne’s day typically starts well before the doors open at 9 am, and it usually begins with reviewing the previous day’s sales analytics. Spiritleaf uses a computer program that tells franchisees what their store is overstocked or understocked in so that they can make informed cannabis and accessories purchases, which is usually the second thing Ballantyne does when she gets in.

Around the same time, she will also be in contact with head office, because they set the prices for stores, so if there are any price adjustments that need to be made, that will happen before the Vernon store opens. By then, staff begin to show up, so Ballantyne will help them set up and get the store ready for customers.

And then the doors open, and while Ballantyne does spend most of her time in the back now, she still circles to the front to talk to customers, which is one of her favourite parts of the day. “We just have such a great group of customers here, and we have a wide range of conversations, from local politics, to the cannabis industry, to dogs — we’re very pet friendly, so a lot of people bring in their dogs.”

Back in the office, Ballantyne will head back to the computer to complete tasks like sending accounting files to the bookkeeper, ordering more products, dealing with returns, inputting purchase orders, receiving products, and organizing promotional activities like in-store pop-ups with licensed producers who sometimes visit to give away free swag to customers, as well as information about the products their companies produce.

Ballantyne is also constantly in contact with her store manager, who talks to her about everything from staffing and scheduling to good and bad feedback about product. That negative feedback, while rare, is the part most challenging part of Sarah’s day, she says. “Although I like to stand behind my products, I can’t control every little thing that goes into every container in here. And then because we go through a centralized distribution system in B.C., I’m always dealing with the other middle person — I can’t deal with LPs directly — so that’s quite challenging.”

Afternoon routine

In the afternoon, Ballantyne completes some financial tasks.  Once her office work is completed, she likes to talk to customers and staff to make sure everything is running smoothly. Local media and reps from licensed producers also usually drop by around this time, so she will spend time with them, as well.

Like almost anyone associated with the cannabis industry, however, Ballantyne and her staff have to be careful about how they advertise. Canadian cannabis advertising laws dictate, for instance, that retailers can’t advertise to young people or promote cannabis as part of an appealing or exciting lifestyle. “So with advertising, it’s a lot of word of mouth,” says Sarah. “So we’re always talking to customers about other things we have or saying things like, ‘If you talk to your friends, tell them we have this, tell them where we are.’”

Before leaving for the day at around 4 pm, Ballantyne will typically review product stock and see what the store is overstocked with so that she can then tell staff which products they might want to suggest to customers. Once Ballantyne gets home, though, that doesn’t mean the working day is over. She can keep a close eye on inventory on her phone, so if she sees sales spikes with particular products, she can still add them to the weekly order.

Bottom line

It’s a busy, dynamic, always changing day for Ballantyne, and she says one of the keys to thriving as a Spiritleaf franchisee is to have an optimistic outlook. “You really need a positive attitude because there are a lot of changes in this industry right now. You have to kind of come back down to earth every day and think about what’s happening in your store, what’s available to you and how are you going to sell it that day, or how are you going to encourage your staff to sell a product.”

And while franchisees also need to have a passion for cannabis to thrive at Spiritleaf, Ballantyne says that the franchise will teach you almost everything you need to know about cannabis. That starts at the intense one-week training course at the head office in Calgary and can then be supplemented by the company’s online education and communication platform, called Spirit Hub, which all employees can use too.

That training is just another example of the comprehensive support franchisees get from Spiritleaf, says Ballantyne, and another reason she’s thankful she decided to go with the company. “I see some of the other independents in this industry around me that are struggling, so I’m just really thankful that there was an opportunity to have my own business but also have that support, especially with all of the regulations and legal stuff that you have to go through.”

As for any advice she would give to someone interested in becoming a Spiritleaf franchisee, it’s simple: do your research. “And maybe ask if you can do some store shadowing with another owner so that you get a really good idea of how it works,” she adds. “It’s so different from province to province and from city to city that you really have to be in touch with what’s going on around you.”

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