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A Dispensary’s Road to Success

By Aaron G. Biros
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There are several key ingredients that go into launching and operating a successful dispensary, all of which pose significant barriers to entry in an extremely competitive retail market.

The Herbery, a dispensary with two locations in Vancouver, Washington, is currently awaiting medical endorsements from the state for both locations. The two co-founders, Jim Mullen and Rick Zahler, found a credit union to work with them, Salal Credit Union in Seattle. “There are five dispensaries in the Western part of Vancouver, so it is quite a saturated market,” says Jim Mullen. “But we have drawn considerable business and are very happy with the success of our two locations.”

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A view inside the The Herbery

It has not always been like that, says Mullen. There are several key ingredients that go into launching and operating a successful dispensary, all of which pose significant barriers to entry in an extremely competitive retail market. Rick Zahler won the second and third positions in Vancouver for the state i502 retail licensing lottery. Zahler has more than 40 years of experience in franchising restaurants, a background that gives him a competitive advantage in scaling up his business.

Mullen and Zahler formed a partnership in early 2014 and by that summer they had finalized their lease agreement, converting an old restaurant into their flagship store. They hired local architects, contractors, and CPA’s and began looking for staff. “We set out to find the best people who could provide a level of customer service that this industry needs to be recognized as a mainstream business,” adds Mullen.

“We are changing the perception that you have to go into some back alley store to buy your pot,” he says. “We have a very attractive, well-lit storefront; we get complimented on the look of our stores all the time, one woman called us the Nordstrom’s of dispensaries.”

Before the doors opened, Mullen and Zahler worked long and hard to find growers, manufacturers and processors that met their standards. “We wanted to fill our display cases and shelves with premium cannabis, so we found really high-quality indoor, outdoor and greenhouse grows across the state,” says Mullen. “We go out and do site visits to see firsthand what nutrients they use, along with their standards and practices, to really size up our suppliers and verify they are giving us safe and high-quality products.”

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A bud tender helping customers at the dispensary

The Herbery hit some early obstacles as the market in Vancouver became highly saturated with dispensaries like New Vansterdam and Main Street Marijuana grossing well over $1 million each in revenue in May 2015.

“Our competition received a lot of media coverage and brand recognition early on. We had to side-step that with heavy guerilla marketing including handing out cards and flyers on street corners,” says Mullen. “We continued to push our social media marketing campaigns, slowly building a clientele with quality products, affordable prices and good customer service.”

Of all the roadblocks they hit, Mullen said the toughest aspect of getting started has been simply “letting people know that we opened and where we are.”

“There are fairly strict marketing rules, and staying compliant is difficult when you are trying to get your name out there,” Mullen adds. “We have been doing what we can with billboards and ads in magazines, but really word of mouth has gotten us far.”

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A bud tender can give recommendations on different strains or advice on consuming edibles

Looking forward, Mullen wants the ability to market in a manner that is similar to other mainstream businesses. He is also excited to get endorsed to sell medical cannabis. “With so many people seeking high-CBD products for a variety of conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic pain, anxiety, and more, we want to help patients get access to the medicine they need.”

As cannabis continues to be studied for its true benefits, Mullen anticipates significant advances in knowledge to occur within a very short timeframe.

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