COVID-19 Ushering in Automated Future for Retail Marijuana

The future of marijuana retail could mean more automation and shorter wait times as Colorado marijuana retailers change their business models during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Green Solution, one of the state’s largest dispensary chains, has installed self-service kiosks in all 21 lobbies of its retail stores. Meanwhile, Boston-based Anna offers self-service marijuana purchasing lockers that operate similar to vending machines, which are currently available in stores owned by Starbuds and Strawberry Fields dispensaries.

The need to fulfill fast, self-service marijuana sales was actually being developed before the pandemic, but the minimal-contact vending machines and self-serve kiosks are becoming more popular in Colorado dispensaries as the pandemic continues. Both options limit the amount of time spent by customers in the dispensary, minimize person-to-person contact and allow for faster customer turnover rates.

“We have clients who have really enjoyed the convenience and feel like it’s created a level of safety for them,” says the Green Solution CEO Steve Lopez, adding the he plans to keep kiosks in the Green Solution locations after the pandemic, for buyer convenience.

Colorado marijuana regulations mandate that dispensaries keep their products for sale behind a partition so that people can’t grab items and throw them down at the cash register, and that can lead to long lines at the pot shop. The Green Solution’s kiosks serve as an electronic ordering and payment station, with customers picking up their orders at a nearby express windows. Anna is more of a vending unit, allowing shoppers to order, pay and pick up products from the stocked machines. Both machines require an employee present to verify customer IDs to comply with state law.

Self-service retail is now one of the several new purchasing procedures implemented during the pandemic. Others include online pre-ordering, as well as curbside and to-go pickup options, all made available in March after Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order loosening the reins on retail marijuana restrictions. The state Marijuana Enforcement Division is currently considering making some of these new pickup options permanent, but automated self-service options are already here to stay, according to Lopez and Anna CEO Matt Frost.

Frost says Anna machines will be appearing in more stores in Colorado and expanding into other states with legal marijuana, too, including California, Massachusetts, Michigan and Nevada. He notes that self-service options are available in nearly every retail space, including self-checkout at grocery stores and menu kiosks in fast food restaurants, and he believes marijuana industry is ready to embrace similar technology.

“In a post-pandemic world, when things sort of settle down, we still have a place, because I think it’s what people are accustomed to in all other walks of life, in everyday life and retail,” Frost says, going on to explain that the marijuana industry is going to “need automation, it’s going to need support services, and it’s going need software.

Dispensaries can place up to 56 different products in each Anna unit; the quality of the products stocked in Anna machines is up to the individual dispensary, but Frost believes customer loyalty will encourage dispensaries to stock each the machines with products of the same caliber as those sold in-person by a budtender.

“If they feel like they didn’t get the best of products, that’s not an experience any of us want. So [the machines] are being treated just as the regular sales floor, in terms of the quality of products being offered,” Frost says.

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