Ontario’s much-awaited retail cannabis market finally made its debut on Monday — well, 40% of it, anyway.
Only 10 of the province’s planned 25 stores were open on Monday, according to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario. The bulk of the open stores — a full 50% — are located in Eastern Ontario, with three shops in Ottawa and two in Kingston. The other five are located in St. Catharines, Brampton, London, Burlington, and a single store in Toronto.
In Ottawa, Jeff Hammond was first in line to check out Superette, one of three stores in the city. Hammond says he was fed up with the Ontario Cannabis Store’s online system, saying three of his orders had been lost in transit.
“The only reason I’m here is so I don’t have to order from OCS anymore,” he says. He wants to see the cannabis he is buying. The strains Tangerine Dream and Delahaze were high on his list — if they have any in stock.
Superette drew a sizeable crowd ahead of the store’s 10 a.m. opening. Local doughnut and coffee shops were handing out freebies to keep people in line warm, while marketing teams from licensed producers Tweed and Aurora were out promoting their brands outside, as a (slightly on-the-nose) reggae playlist played out of a portable speaker.
Many people were there mostly out of curiosity. “I’m really just here for the novelty,” said one shopper named Ryan.
“I think coming on the first day is the thrill of it all,” said Kellie King, who spent several hours in the store with her service dog, a small Chihuahua named Georgina. The lineups were a source of delays for many people, as the store’s employees worked out the kinks of the new system. (This reporter spent 75 minutes from the time of entering the store, to the time of receiving their order — and that was in the express line.)
That, however, didn’t seem to dampen most people’s spirits — the novelty, mixed with the unique 1980s decor (complete with an Atari Pong machine) gave people plenty to do while they waited.
For many of the employees of cannabis shops across the province, it was their first time selling the product. As of March 28, nearly 800 people enrolled in CannSell, the only approved cannabis retail training program, which was developed by Lift & Co. More than 600 individuals received their training by the end of last week.
At Kingston’s Spiritleaf store, there was another strong turnout. “It was awesome,” Spiritleaf’s CEO Darren Bondar told Lift & Co. by phone. “We had about 100+ people waiting in line, we had the town crier out to announce it. … We’ve so far had just over 500 customers through [by 1 p.m.] It’s been incredible.”
Bondar said the company wasn’t setting any expectations in terms of numbers or customers, but did admit the turnout was going to “meet or exceed” what he’d hoped for at the store.
In Toronto, the sole opening store saw lineups beginning on Sunday night. Caryma Sa’d, a Toronto-based lawyer, staged a camp-out to be one of the first people in line outside The Hunny Pot on Queen St. West, hoping to make history of some sort in the province. The weather, as it does, refused to cooperate: “It wasn’t supposed to be this cold,” she told Lift & Co. on the evening of March 31.
The launch of retail sales has been the subject of much hand-wringing and criticism in Ontario after the provincial government opted to distribute operating licences via a lottery, with more than 16,000 entries (most of them from individuals, not companies).
Predictably, the lottery produced a shakeup for the retail market, as established players were entirely shut out in the results, with most of the winners being relative newcomers to the cannabis industry. Many of those winners struck partnerships with established companies — and got paid significant amounts of money to do so. Partnership agreements have so far been kept private, but in the week after the lottery there were reports of offers as high as $5 million — though some chose to go it alone.
But even those stores that could open did not necessarily have an easy time. At Ottawa’s Superette, an early-morning break-in at the store on March 31 threatened to derail the opening.
Superette’s CEO Mimi Lam told Lift & Co. that “everything has been accounted for,” so it doesn’t appear any cannabis was stolen.
Although winning the lottery was being talked about like a licence to print money, many of the winners will now have to learn an entirely new business. In most cases, Lam predicts, it won’t be the cannabis business that will be hard to learn, but the retailing business.
“If you have no retail experience, I think that’s where you’ll really suffer,” said Trina Fraser, an Ottawa-based cannabis lawyer, ahead of the retail launch.“If you don’t understand all the different parties and levels of government, licences, permits, the hiring process — all the things that go into getting these stores open — you can easily trip up and have delays.”
And with more than half of the province’s stores still yet to open, there is still plenty of time to allow the launch to play out across the province.