Is it Time to Open a Dispensary Drive-Thru?

Forced to adapt to new social distancing protocols by COVID-19 / coronavirus, some cannabis dispensaries are turning to drive-thrus as a solution.

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Are they a temporary fix or the wave of the future?

Cannabis and Coronavirus: 20th-Century Solution to a Modern Problem

The drive-thru as we know it dates to 1930 when the Grand National Bank of St. Louis opened the first drive-thru window. More recently, the Tumbleweeds Express dispensary in Parachute, Colorado brought the concept to the age of legal cannabis back in 2017. But few if any back then were thinking in terms of the emergency measures demanded by a global pandemic: Social distancing, self-quarantining and extreme concerns about hand-washing and hygiene.

Now it’s appearing that those forward-thinking early adopters may have been on to something. Operating a dispensary drive-thru is not only good for minimizing the inherent risks in human-to-human contact; for some dispensaries, it’s a lifeline. As we’ve reported previously, while some jurisdictions have classified cannabis dispensaries as essential businesses, others have either voluntarily shut down or been forced to do so by emergency restrictions. But in at least a few cases, dispensaries have been able to keep their drive-thru lanes open, thus ensuring that customers have access to needed medicine (as well as maintaining dispensaries’ all-important cash flow).

In the case of Edgewater, MD’s Mana Supply Co., a medical cannabis dispensary, the company’s reported $100,000 investment in a disused bank drive-thru is already paying off. While the dispensary closed its doors Sunday, March 22, the new dispensary drive-thru station is serving a healthy line of cars. After pre-ordering their cannabis products online, customers arrive at the drive-thru to have their IDs checked twice via high-resolution video cameras. In the drive-thru bay itself, high-speed garage doors offer security and privacy while orders are filled.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, medical dispensary Ilera Healthcare is fortunate in that its facility already occupies a former bank building equipped with a drive-thru. As in the case of Mana Supply, customers must preorder their products ahead of time. The dispensary is recommending customers use CanPay, a debit app that allows them to circumvent the use of cash. As we’ve written previously, even in the best of times, paper money is notoriously unclean; in the age of COVID-19 / coronavirus its propensity to hang on to germs has potentially dire implications.

Meanwhile in Las Vegas, the sprawling NuWu dispensary—which first inaugurated 24-hour drive-thru service in late 2017—has seen an exponential leap in usage. As reported by Marijuana Business Daily, the company reports a roughly fourfold increase in drive-thru usage compared with the week before. The up to 45-minute wait time might seem excessive, but customers appear to prefer it to the two- to three-day wait for home delivery.

Cannabis and Coronavirus: Are Drive-Thrus the Future of Cannabis?

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As with so many things, the COVID-19 / coronavirus is upending our notion of what the cannabis industry is about. Whereas dispensaries have traditionally competed with each other in terms of design, accessibility and customer experience, the uncertainty of the current landscape is forcing a reassessment. Suddenly, cannabis delivery, express and curbside pickup, and efficient processing and social-distancing methodologies such as dispensary drive-thrus are looking a good deal more appealing than they may have even a month ago.

The experience of California cannabis giant Harborside may hold some valuable clues as to how to proceed. When the company opened their drive-thru facility in Desert Hot Springs in late 2019, dispensary staff had to adapt to the new workflow demanded by a busy drive-thru operation. By identifying top-selling products and presenting a leaner, more streamlined menu to drive-thru customers meant that popular items could be kept at an arm’s reach away. The dispensary staff were able to maintain and preserve their all-important interaction time with customers, while efficiently processing and fulfilling their orders.

Finally, when it came to the security of their staff, the dispensary looked to the banking industry rather than the fast-food model. Bulletproof glass and a secure physical portal allow staff to dispense products safely and remotely. While it’s hoped that the cannabis industry’s eventual move from a cash-only to a more universal debit- and credit-based footing will circumvent some of the need for such security measures, the realities of the current landscape demand them. And for those dispensaries forward-looking enough to invest in drive-thrus, in the age of COVID-19 / coronavirus, those precautions already appear to be paying sizable dividends.

Whether you’re instituting a drive-thru or opting for another solution, make sure customers know about it. Give us a call to learn about the best way to advertise your drive-thru, express pickup, or delivery services.