All photos courtesy of Common Citizen.

The first thing a customer might notice is the windows. At Common Citizen’s Flint, Mich., storefront, the windows are large and gleaming. It’s a welcome sight, a warm invitation to come in.

On the way into the shopping area, around the corner from the check-in desk, customers walk through a café. Eventually, the goal is to station a barista and bring in a local roaster to provide a space for customers to connect in a more relaxed environment. “The idea was to slow them down, not to speed them up,” Common Citizen CEO Mike Elias says, “and to have a cup of coffee and talk about cannabis outside of the retail floor, just to connect and make it comfortable and familiar.”

For now, Common Citizen is allowed to give coffee to customers for free on some days, but the café is an example of the long-term, customer-focused planning that the company is working out with state regulators. In Michigan’s new adult-use market, Common Citizen is exploring the possibilities of what a dispensary environment can look like.

In January, the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) honored the company’s Flint storefront with the Gold Award for retail store design. It was the first time that the ICSC recognized a cannabis business with the award, another notch in the ongoing normalization of this industry in the U.S. and abroad.

“We realized that consumers are coming in to feel a certain way,” Elias says. “There’s a need. Why not design [dispensaries] based on those need states?”

Common Citizen dispensaries are called “chapters,” budtenders are “citizen advisers,” and products are organized by approachable categories that make sense to consumers.

Customized for Customer Preferences

Once inside the shopping area at one of the company’s three open dispensaries in Detroit, Flint and Battle Creek, customers encounter color-coded tables with helpful signage that explains the common experiences as well as the chemical properties of each product.

There’s “Unplug,” which is focused on solo cannabis use and more relaxing, sedative terpene profiles for nighttime consumption. “Daily Dose” is a microdosing section that appeals to casual consumers interested in overall wellness. “Time to Shine” is a classic adult-use suite: vibrant terpene profiles and high cannabinoid content, all leaning on the euphoric effect of the plant. “Sweet Relief” is geared toward medical patients seeking high THC content and specific products like Rick Simpson Oil (RSO).

On the floor, citizen advisers help guide customers through the options, often asking questions about their cannabis experience (if any) and desired outcomes.

Common Citizen launched adult-use sales on Feb. 27. Elias says the sales volume increased dramatically after the dispensary became the first to secure an adult-use license in Flint, a city of about 100,000 residents. When the adult-use market opened in late 2019, only 21% of Michigan municipalities had decided to allow adult-use cannabis sales.

This new landscape gives Common Citizen something of a blank canvas to work with. There are evolving state and local regulations, but within that context the company sees its employees as the frontline creative minds developing what an adult-use cannabis experience feels like in Michigan. Elias says this is in part due to his and his fellow co-founders’ engineering backgrounds. Data, he says, drives the mission. And the mission drives the passion. He compares the company to a fast-moving, nimble tech startup. Change is the only constant.

“In a lean culture, instead of prescribing direction, we create hypotheses that need to be proved out by the staff.” Mike Elias, CEO, Common Citizen

An Eye for Continuous Improvement

Elias’ background is in lean manufacturing and Six Sigma in health care. He’s an operations-focused CEO, the former chief transformation officer at North York General Hospital in Toronto.

“The answers to improvement are all at the front lines,” he says. “If you want to get really good at strategy, the connection between what’s happening at the front line and the senior team needs to be flattened, so that we can elevate the staff in the discussion on where we need to go, how fast we need to go, how much [we need] by when because they’re the ones that do the work. In a lean culture, instead of prescribing direction, we create hypotheses that need to be proved out by the staff. The data and the dialogue is happening almost hourly from the front lines. As a strategist, we are just creating an environment to unleash their creativity.”

After serving Flint’s corner of the Michigan medical cannabis market for eight months, Elias says the switch to adult-use was a natural proving ground for this leadership mentality. Sales would obviously increase, so what could the staff do to brace themselves for the surge?

“In terms of what we did operationally, we revamped our entire inventory control system,” he says. “We ran what we call a ‘kaizen event.’ This is an industrial engineering, lean manufacturing tool where essentially we mapped out current state, determined future state, came up with a gap analysis and identified all the constraints in the inventory control system that robbed us of value-added capacity.”

Put simply, Common Citizen used its sales data to better understand what inventory was moving when and why. It centralized and streamlined that inventory management system so that employees could better connect with customers in the store. By using yesterday’s data to understand how tomorrow’s sales would unfold, Elias says the team found that it could strip away some of the excess inventory it was holding in the back of the store. “We designed out all the waste,” he says.

Educated Citizens

Out on the sales floor, Elias says that a focus on cannabis education can accomplish a similar effect. If citizen advisers lead with education about a particular product category or terpene, they don’t need to upsell. The story captures the customer’s interest. Common Citizen always considers customers who aren’t already active cannabis consumers. What are they looking for in the retail environment?

Part of the “chapter” and “citizen advisory” concept is the fundamental idea of doing away with old-school terminology that may turn off new customers. Citizen advisers provide each customer with a Citizen Code Book that defines some of the more scientific jargon that will be used on the sales floor (e.g., “myrcene,” “concentrates”). The Code Book explains the interplay between terpenes and cannabinoids, offering plainspoken perspectives on how the entourage effect steers certain chemical reactions in each cultivar. And if nothing else, it’s a helpful conversation-starter.

“We consider ourselves educators before we’re retailers,” Elias says. “Our job is not really to push product but to give as much education as possible. When the customer or patient are ready to buy, we’ve already established some level of rapport and respect.”

Common Citizen’s parent company, Michigan Pure Med, was founded in 2017 by four engineers with roots in Detroit. The plan is to hone the company’s craft in their home state before any future expansion. Elias says it’s a purpose-driven company, and the purpose is igniting the passion of its staff. “The staff needs a mission,” he says. “They need a mission, because when they have a mission, their passion comes across in the interaction with the consumer, and that’s how the brand is elevated.”

This manifests in the company’s “employee happiness strategy,” a “chief citizen officer” who works with citizen advisers on the front lines, and daily huddles where staff work together on pressure points and celebrate wins.

Even after customers leave the store, citizen advisers like to stay in touch. “We call them,” Elias says. “We follow up. Every citizen adviser has a patient list, a customer list, where, when they have downtime, they call them—if they gave us their contact info, which many of them do. They say, ‘Hey, how’d it go? How’d it work out for you?’”

In these conversations, citizen advisers are able to dial in their customers’ preferences for the next time they come into the shop, whether that be for a cup of coffee or another flower purchase at the Time to Shine table.

Eric Sandy is digital editor of Cannabis Dispensary and Cannabis Business Times.