Rural Ontario cannabis shops succeed by being ‘small and nimble’

Smaller, more nimble cannabis businesses enjoy more flexibility in navigating the challenging cannabis sector.

By Wayne Doyle, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,

Shortly after cannabis was legalized in Canada 2018, retail cannabis stores started popping up like weeds.

At the time, it seemed like a new pot shop was opening on every corner.

Many of them are gone today, victims of an overzealous retail market that couldn’t support the many small ‘mom and pop’ shops that opened during the first wave of new stores.

Surprisingly, some shops that opened in more rural locations have had more success than some of their urban counterparts. Shops in Angus, Midhurst, Elmvale and Hillsdale, Ont. are buzzing right along.

“I think part of it is luck, but we were also early,” says Susan Yu, owner of BudTimez Cannabis on County Road 27 in Midhurst. “We opened our first store in the Wellington Plaza in Barrie in 2021. When we opened there, there wasn’t a store on every block. We had a bit of a head start.”

Yu opened the Midhurst location a year later in 2022. Since opening, it’s built an impressive following of mostly local customers with a regular contingent of Wasaga Beach visitors from “the city” who stop in on their way to the beach.

“It’s like any other retail operation,” Yu says. “You’ve got to have a convenient location that is easy for people to get in and out of.”

Yu says many of the folks who got into the cannabis retail business early on didn’t give the venture the serious consideration it deserved.

“They all thought ‘How hard can it be to sell weed?”’ Yu says. “They discovered it was actually quite hard.”

Like most other retailers, Yu started off selling cannabis staples — flower, pre-rolled joints, hashish and oil. Over time, the offering has increased to include beverages, edibles and concentrates.

She says the industry is changing so rapidly that some retailers can’t keep up.

“We’re small and nimble and have the ability to pivot, to be more agile than our competitors,” Yu says.

About a kilometre down the street from Yu’s BudTimez is a Tokyo Smoke location.

One of the more popular cannabis retailers in southern Ontario, Tokyo Smoke started in 2015, years ahead of Canadian legalization. Within a decade, it’s become an established brand in the marketplace.

Ayla Qualls of Tokyo Smoke on Carson Road, just north of the City of Barrie’s northern boundary, says one of the main reasons why Tokyo Smoke has done well is the company approached the sector with a good business plan.

“We pride ourselves on our loyalty programs,” Qualls says. “We think it’s important to develop a relationship with our customer that’s based on value and being able to provide the customer with new experiences and education.”

Qualls says once people get past the “negative stigma” associated with cannabis — think Reefer Madness, the 1930s-era exploitation film — they begin to open themselves up to new experiences, discovering for themselves the myriad of benefits derived from cannabis and its byproducts.

“As someone who was injured in a terrible car accident, I can tell you honestly about how good cannabidiol (CBD) oil is for me and how it can help alleviate pain,” Qualls says. “It’s so much better than any prescription. We’re just starting to see how beneficial it really is.”

Being able to articulate the benefits of cannabis is contributing to the success of Bigfoots Cannabis in Elmvale.

According to Jay Belcourt, who helps manage Bigfoots, talking about cannabis and its benefits in his community has made a dramatic impact on business.

“This is a farming community, a community of older people,” says Belcourt. “A lot of them were skeptical when they were told about the health benefits. But we’ve seen a lot of younger people educating their parents and grandparents and it’s having an impact.”

One of the key selling points of cannabis over pharmaceuticals, according to Belcourt, is the fact cannabis is 100 per cent natural.

It’s been taking a while for the older folks to buy into the idea, but Belcourt says there’s been a slow and steady migration of older people to the cannabis way of life.

“I think most of them thought it was just some way for the hippies to justify their drugs,” Belcourt says. “But now they’re seeing and feeling the results for themselves and they’ve discovered they like the idea of using a natural medicine.

“Many pharmaceuticals have negative side effects,” Belcourt adds. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in natural pain treatments and sleeping treatments. A lot of older folks who have a tough time sleeping are looking at cannabis solutions. It’s a growing market.”

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