The answers to your cannabis queries could come in the form of questions when the province’s online pot store flickers to life Oct. 17.
The Ontario Cannabis Store website, details of which will be unveiled in the coming days, will guide shoppers to appropriate products through a search engine that can sort through the scores of offerings from its 32 licensed cannabis producers.
An official with knowledge of the site says the engine, created by Canadian online retail giant Shopify, will search and sort using such filters as desired levels of the active cannabis components like the buzz-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and the medicinal cannabidiol (CBD), the types of tastes and aromas being sought or common street names for the drug.
While the OSC website will be the sole online purchasing and distribution portal in Ontario, the producers themselves will offer their own sites that they hope will become the pot seeker’s first-line shopping guides.
These will lead shoppers to appropriate products by asking a series of more and more precise questions to gauge the kind of experience they’re seeking, producers say.
“You’ll be able to come in and go to an iPad and say, you know, ‘tonight I feel like going to a movie, or tonight I feel like great sex’,” says Darren Bondar, president and CEO of the cannabis store franchisor Inner Spirit Holdings.
“And it will kind of walk you through a few different questions to get to a strain that might be right for what you’re looking for,” says Bondar, who hopes to eventually establish several dozen of his company’s Spiritleaf stores in Ontario.
In a recreational landscape that will feature hundreds of strains and products as well as a federal prohibition against advertising, sponsorships — or making virtually any claims about their wares — the cannabis producers supplying the OCS will largely utilize that question-and-answer format to lure people to their brands and strains.
“A lot of people in the industry are focused on that, starting at the outcome and then working back to the products that would match what the customer is looking for,” says Jordan Sinclair, head of communications with the giant Smiths Falls, Ont., producer Canopy Growth Corp.
“That’s a good way to approach it just because it feels like it’s a market that’s going to require a little bit of education,” says Sinclair, whose company shipped out its millionth order of medical marijuana from its own e-commerce site this month.
The OCS site itself will not allow any effect claims from producers in the product descriptions or search parameters it will feature.
And Sinclair says producers will have to work closely with Health Canada — which will police the sites for contraventions of its no claims policy — to work out reasonable language guidelines.
“There’s always a bit of back and forth that has to happen as the letter of the regulations and the spirit of the regulations net out,” he says.
“The regulations come out, those regulations are interpreted and then, basically, we’re trying to find the line to gain a competitive advantage and sometimes the regulator pushes back.”
Sinclair says the needs and preferences of the purchasing public will likely determine how close to making a claim about a product’s effects the labelling can approach. Such claims are prohibited because products can affect each individual differently despite their propensity to create a common experience.
And they have already been challenged by Health Canada in Nova Scotia, where provincially-run retail outlets sorted products under headings like “Relax” and “Energize” to the federal regulator’s dismay.
In this province, the recreational online enterprise will be controlled by the OCS — a crown corporation affiliated with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario that will run the ocs.ca site and its distribution system.
Licensed producers like Canopy will send their products to the OCS distribution centre — based in the GTA — which will take and ship the online orders and receive the payments.
An announcement about which company will be contracted to ship the products was imminent, an OCS spokesperson said.
While delivery times were still being worked out in recent days, he did say shipping would likely be longer for shoppers living farther away from the GTA distribution centre.
“If you’re in Killarney or if you’re in Toronto you’ll likely have a different distribution time,” he said.
Whoever the shipper turns out to be, its delivery personnel will be required to check identification at a customer’s door before handing over any packages, which could initially include dried and fresh cannabis — loose or in pre-rolled joints — cannabis oils, seeds and accessories.
(Recreational customers can purchase up to 30 grams of dried cannabis — or about an ounce — per order.)
Though details of the OSC website have yet to be revealed, a person with knowledge of its design says it will always open with an age-verification — or “age gate” — sign-in page.
It will then present the option of going to a learning section — explaining the ways cannabis interacts with your body and other basic facts — or straight to the shopping page and its Shopify-built search engine.
“You may sort of say I’m interested in (THC-heavy) Sativa and then I’d like to sort that list against THC levels,” the source said. “It all depends upon the individual, it’s a very individualized process.”
But many producer sites — which ocs.ca will not link to — will refine searches even further, beginning with a desired end-point and guiding customers to a product through a series of questions like those featured in a demonstration “pop-up” store that’s been making the rounds across the country.
Promoting the Solei brand of products that will be offered online and in shops by the Leamington, Ont., producer Aphria, the pop-up paid a recent visit to the Toronto Fall Home Show at Exhibition Place.
“This is our ‘find your moment’ tool,” Aphria associate brand manager Dina Qahwaji said, pointing to a large touch-screen on a wall of the mobile mock-up.
Qahwaji says customers start out with the initial question — “What kind of moment would you like to enjoy with Solei?” — and are then guided through a filter of queries to a specific product strain.
If you pick higher energy over lower energy as the main theme of your moment, for example, you’re asked about the company you’d like to have it in — solo, partner or friends.
Should you pick friends, the screen will then give you a choice of settings and activities — hosting a dinner party, seeing a favourite band, a “book club with a twist” or hanging out after work.
If you pick the band option, then Solei’s “Sense” product is your ticket. A diesel/citrus scented cannabis strain, Sense comes in dried flower and pre-rolled formats. For connoisseurs, the smell and taste of a product are critical, experts say.
Qahwaji says the company will have the moment finder up online for the Oct. 17 legalization date and hopes people can choose their moment-defining strain of Solei cannabis on it before going to ocs.ca to order.
Shopify vice president and general manager Loren Padelford says many online shoppers will have an instant comfort with the OCS site, recognizing its similarities with more established, web-based retail sectors.
“You’re going to see pictures of packaging and description of product and pricing information and shipping details,” Padelford says.
Padelford says online residency and age verification requirements will differ across the country.
“But as an example, you can imagine having to put in your drivers license number,” he says.
“That mechanism can be done online … done quickly, done safely and securely and allow both the consumers and the retailers to know that this transaction is being done with someone who is legally allowed to purchase.”
Unlike many online retail sites, OCS officials say the site will record as little information on customer purchases as possible and any that is taken will be stored exclusively in Canada.
Unlike most products — liquor and beer included — cannabis must be displayed in bland packaging that displays little more than a brand name and logo, levels of the active cannabinoid ingredients THC and CBD, and a warning label.
Bondar — who has 20 stores under construction in Western Canada and hopes to eventually have about 100 across the country — says his franchises will try to counter that banal packaging by offering an elegant and highly interactive shopping experience.
“You’re walking into a really warm inviting environment,” says Bondar, who has a model store in Calgary that will open for real on Oct. 17.
“All (reclaimed) wood and natural elements, it would be comfortable for an executive or a soccer parent or a grandparent.”
The actual products will be stored in showcases lining the walls with some displayed in a “smell jar” for connoisseur users.
“You can inspect it, look (through) a magnifying glass, be able to remove the little rubber plug to smell the different profiles,” Bondar says.
At Spiritleaf stores, the products will be dispensed by staff trained in both product specifications and responsible retailing, he says.
“Everybody is ID’d. If you look under 30 (or) 35 years old you’re going to get ID’d in our stores,” Bondar says. “It will be right at the door. You can’t walk in unless you’re over the age of 19. And no one who is intoxicated will be served.”
Joseph Hall is a Toronto-based reporter covering cannabis. Reach him on email: firstname.lastname@example.org