Rolling with the Super Nova of Cannabis Retail

Nova Cannabis has 30 stores in Alberta, one currently in Ontario, and are looking to open another three in Alberta and up to ten Ontario cannabis retail locations this year. Ben Kaplan caught up with Marcie Kiziak, the Nova Cannabis president, as they both make sense of COVID-19.
  • BK: What has COVID-19 meant to operations?

    MK: We’ve really changed our stores to protect customers: social distancing, limiting the number of customers, implementing strict frequent cleaning and disinfecting protocols, using floor decals to show people where to stand, and installing plexiglass barriers to give both us and our customer’s protection.

  • BK: Through the whole thing, have you remained opened?

    MK: Yes for the most part. In Alberta, we needed to keep a few stores offline for as few days to sort out a couple of instances where a location had staff shortages in the early days. Since we did not permit anyone to come to work if they showed any symptoms whatsoever. It was a small issue at the beginning but just a few stores and didn’t last for any length of time. Ontario as we all know was different. We were declared an essential service for a few weeks and then the government changed its mind and gave one day’s notice that all of the cannabis retailers had to close.

  • BK: I remember that. It was a Thursday, and everyone raced to Queen Street!

    MK: That Thursday, we were declared to be a “non-essential service,” but we opened again with click-and-collect when the government reversed that decision to allow curbside pick-up. Looking forward to business as usual on May 19!

  • BK: Is there anything in your work history that you can compare to the novel coronavirus?

    MK: My previous background is in oil and gas and you prepare yourself for emergencies any time you kick off a project or are on a large site. I have training around crisis management, but as for retail, the novel coronavirus was a new experience for us. I don’t think we had any idea of what to expect day after day and it came so quickly, we just had to adjust and be nimble; then adjust again and stay nimble. It was so much pivoting and a lot of communication from senior management to our teams out in the stores.

  • BK: Can you give me an example?

    MK: Grant [Sanderson, VP, operations] had to source hand sanitizer from a personal contact at a company that pivoted their operations to hand sanitizer and for four weeks, we spent hours a day shopping for cleaning supplies for the stores because they had become so hard to find.

    We were in the trenches with our staff for sure. For the first couple of weeks, I definitely wanted the stores to feel supported and know that I’m there for them. I was in the stores a lot, but only briefly to deliver cleaning supplies and provide support. Our senior management has been coming into our Store Support Centre (our term for the office because that is our company culture) what matters is what happens in the stores not the office: every day since all this began. We owe it to our store teams to be there for them.

  • BK: Is there an upside to all this craziness?

    MK: I don’t know if I’d call it an upside, but we watched the team go into battle together and that’s how you build cohesiveness. That’s how you build culture and I think our leadership and store teams trust us and believes that we’re looking out for them, and will make the right decisions for them. We heard them when they were afraid and we listened. And we backed that up with a $3/hour bonus hero pay program retroactive to March 8th. I am so humbled and proud of our incredible store teams. We saw store managers run their stores solo for weeks because they care so much about their customers that they wanted to be there for them as they regularly would be. We saw some incredible Customer Service Representatives stepping up to run stores while we were down a few store managers and Area Managers working tills to help relieve pressure off staff. There is no other team that I would want to go into battle with.

  • BK: Backtracking, congratulations on being named president of Nova Cannabis. That’s huge. As a woman in cannabis, what does your becoming president of Nova mean to others, watching the sector and wanting to follow in your footsteps?

    MK: It’s important that we see women succeeding in the industry and hopefully inspiring to other women in our industry. We’re not seeing women lead multi-unit retail businesses, a few of the smallers ones are led by women, but not 40 locations. Beyond gender, I think people need to be confident and smart and the most competent, fastest, most committed people should be rewarded and recognized for the work they do. That said, I think successful women in all industries need to link arms and elevate each other with mentoring, honest communication and feedback and recognition. I am particularly lucky because I have a strong network of female leaders who support and challenge me as well as an incredible leadership team at Alcanna who do the same.

  • BK: Let’s move out of cannabis and gender for a minute. What are you doing when you’re not at work?

    MK: Physical fitness is important to me. I think a healthy body helps maintain a healthy mind. Running and hot yoga and all those great things that help provide balance. I’m also an animal lover and volunteer as much as I can fit in. Beyond that, I also spend time in the post-secondary institutions mentoring and guest lecturing as often as they will have me.

  • BK: You work with animal rescues and non-profits, right?

    MK: Yeah, I have three rescue dogs and work with an organization that has a ranch for sexually abused children. I’m on their board of directors and we teach them employment skills so they’re equipped to become active members of society.

  • BK: What’s happening with your charities given social isolation precautions?

    MK: A lot of rescue dogs are being adopted, which is good, but unfortunately the ranch is currently closed.

  • BK: Why do you do so much work with kids?

    MK: When I was wearing my HR hat, I saw what happens when an employee simply doesn’t know how to be in a workplace, so teaching people how to be productive employees is very important to me.

  • BK: What made you excited about the opportunity to work in cannabis and what gave you pause?

    MK: I joined Alcanna in a different role and the day I started, we announced the cannabis initiative. I had no idea what I was walking into. I was very much looking forward to an industry change into liquor retail but the more I watched the cannabis industry start to unfold, I was hooked.

  • BK: Why’s that?

    MK: Because we didn’t have a path to follow. We were literally out there with our machetes creating the path every day.

  • BK: That sounds fun. But also hairy.

    MK: It’s the most exciting part of everything and every day brings something new. The launch of 2.0 products was a new path, every iteration of the regulations are a new path, and what I love most is to link arm-in-arm with the people around me and figure out the best, newest ways to educate consumers and grow the business.

  • BK: So what you like most about cannabis is...?

    MK: The people. You don’t always get into a new industry where the people are this passionate about what they do every day.

  • BK: Now flip that for me, please. What bit about cannabis gives you pause?

    MK: The restrictions around the sales of cannabis are modelled around tobacco rather than liquor which can create some challenges on the retail side but also on the employee engagement side. We carefully hired people who represent Nova and cannabis so well, but then we have to talk about it and market it within the confines of a very small box.

  • BK: Is there a stigma about working in weed?

    MK:. Of course there is for some people. Mostly those who never supported legalization. But that stigma was reinforced by the ill-advised and counter-productive rules and regulations that Health Canada imposed for legalization. They make no sense. Until that changes don’t think for a second that this is an easy industry to work in—especially for the next five years.

  • BK: What’s been your biggest surprise?

    MK: Probably the customers. We had no idea what to expect in terms of who would shop in our stores and I can tell you that the customers vary significantly from one trade area to the next. We see a lot of seniors and new consumers in our stores as well as long time consumers. One of our favourite customers are the new consumer who has a ton of questions and an open mind. We also love it when long time consumers come in and share their stores of what cannabis means to them.

  • BK: Do you have a favourite Nova memory thus far?

    MK: Legalization day for sure. We had lineups at every store and had DJs play the lines and the number of times I heard people say it's the most fun they ever had in a lineup was great!

  • BK: You were making history.

    MK: Watching people tell their stories to perfect strangers in these lineups was wonderful. October 17, 2018 was the hottest October day I can remember and people were telling us about what the product means to them and their experiences and we’re really moved. And I’m talking about senior citizens and 20-year-olds sharing those experiences and common ground. It was the coolest thing I've ever seen.

  • BK: Lastly, talk to the country: what makes Nova Cannabis unique and what will folks be treated to when they step into your shops?

    MK: “Learn” is a word I always use. We’ve always wanted our stores to be a safe place where people can go and learn and create an environment where anyone from an experienced consumer to a first-timer feels welcomed. We aim to be a place that is comfortable and where people feel at home.

  • BK: I shop at a Nova in Toronto and certainly appreciate that.

    MK: We always say that if you come in three times and don't buy anything, that's fine with us. If you want to be in and out in four minutes, have your ID handy, and that’s fine, too. We want to give people the right sensory experience—whoever they are, and every time. No matter who you are: experienced consumer or newcomer; senior citizen or young adult; come in wearing a business suit or jeans, if you don’t feel at ease in our stores we are doing something wrong. So far we have been able to get it right—and we aim to keep it that way.