COVID-19 Ushering in Automated Future for Retail Pot

Self-service kiosks are now a purchasing option at all 21 of the Green Solution locations.
Self-service kiosks are now a purchasing option at all 21 of the Green Solution locations. Courtesy of the Green Solution
The future of marijuana retail could hold more automation and shorter wait times as Colorado marijuana retailers change their business models during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Green Solution, one of the state's largest dispensary chains, has installed self-service kiosks in the lobbies of all 21 of its retail stores. Meanwhile, Boston-based Anna offers self-service marijuana purchasing lockers that operate similar to vending machines; those are currently featured at stores owned by Starbuds and Strawberry Fields dispensaries.

Technology enabling fast, self-service marijuana sales was actually being developed before the pandemic, but the minimal-contact vending machines and self-serve kiosks are becoming more popular in Colorado dispensaries as social distancing continues. Both options limit the amount of time spent by customers in the dispensary, minimize person-to-person contact and allow for faster customer turnover rates.

“We have clients who have really enjoyed the convenience and feel like it’s created a level of safety for them,” says Green Solution CEO Steve Lopez, adding that he plans to keep kiosks in the Green Solution locations after the pandemic, for buyer convenience.

Colorado marijuana regulations mandate that dispensaries keep their products for sale behind a partition so that people can’t grab items and throw them down at the cash register, and that can lead to long lines at the pot shop. The Green Solution's kiosks serve as an electronic ordering and payment station, with customers picking up their orders at nearby express windows. Anna is more of a vending unit, allowing shoppers to order, pay and pick up products from the stocked machines. Both machines require that an employee verify customer IDs, to comply with state law.

Self-service retail is one of several new purchasing procedures implemented during the pandemic. Others include online pre-ordering, as well as curbside and to-go pickup options, all made available in March after Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order loosening retail marijuana restrictions. The state Marijuana Enforcement Division is currently considering making some of these new pickup options permanent, but automated self-service options are already here to stay, according to Lopez.

Anna CEO Matt Frost agrees. He says that Anna machines will be appearing in more stores in Colorado, as well as other states with legal marijuana, including California, Massachusetts, Michigan and Nevada. Self-service options are available in nearly every retail space, including self-checkout at grocery stores and menu kiosks in fast-food restaurants, and he believes the marijuana industry is ready to embrace similar technology.

“In a post-pandemic world, when things sort of settle down, we still have a place, because I think it’s what people are accustomed to in all other walks of life, in everyday life and retail," Frost says, adding that the marijuana industry is going to "need automation, it’s going to need support services, and it’s going need software.

Dispensaries can place up to 56 different products in each Anna unit; the lineup offered is up to the individual dispensary, but Frost believes that dispensaries will stock the machines with products of the same caliber as those sold in person by a budtender, to encourage customer loyalty.

“If they feel like they didn't get the best of products, that’s not an experience any of us want," Frost says. "So [the machines] are being treated just as the regular sales floor in terms of the quality of products being offered." 
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Clara Geoghegan is a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, where she majored in anthropology with an emphasis on public health. She worked at Radio 1190’s News Underground and freelanced for Denverite. She is now the cannabis intern at Westword.
Contact: Clara Geoghegan