How cannabis consumers handled pandemic buying

Increasingly looking to lift their mood and relax, their interest in online browsing has not slowed since stores reopened.

Like every sector during the pandemic, recreational cannabis is dealing with shifting consumer habits and trying to determine which behaviours are temporary and which are here to stay.

Analyzing online consumer activity helps illuminate the ecommerce market growth spurt, and points to a loyalty-building opportunity for the emerging brands as retail re-opening and expansion also heats up.

Programmatic media intelligence firm MiQ compiled insights based on visitor data from websites of several major cannabis retail aggregators in Canada, as well as location data from geofencing 125 cannabis dispensaries and retail outlets across Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton.

While cannabis store visits were down 73% during the initial days of COVID-19 due to quarantine regulations, the foot traffic was offset by online visits. From the start of the pandemic until the end of May, the average frequency of online visits increased by 47%. “Click-and-collect” related pages on cannabis sites increased 261% during the height of COVID-19, and searches for how to purchase cannabis online increased by 27%, along with recipes for cooking with cannabis.

Since cannabis stores have begun to reopen, visits to bricks-and-mortar increased by 181% compared to the peak of social distancing regulations. But the online trend has not abated, and average frequency of daily visits to cannabis brand sites has doubled from two before COVID-19, to four. Additionally, time spent on a brand website has increased by four minutes.

MiQ points out that the growth could indicate increasing brand loyalty among customers, an ongoing pain point for heavily regulated brands that have struggled to differentiate or make meaningful gains in share – but it may also point to more browsing, with consumers looking to find brands and products without the guidance of in-store budtenders.

In either case, MiQ points out the opportunity in web data for targeting first-time buyers or retargeting previous buyers. And when it comes to in-demand products, the reasons for using cannabis have changed, possibly in response to the way lives have changed during the pandemic.

Depression was not in the top six reasons for using cannabis prior to the pandemic; it since became the second-most common reason in MiQ’s study, representing 12% of users at the pandemic’s outset and decreasing to only 11% by the end of May. Those using cannabis because of pain jumped from second to first; because of this, anxiety fell from the most common reason to third, despite the number of searches staying consistent. Insomnia jumped from sixth to fourth.

Given the nature of the product, cannabis consumers are likely to find new products based on information that describes the feelings it gives them. During the pandemic, the three cannabis-associated effects Canadians browsed for the most were “arousal,” “euphoria” and “relaxation.” Interest for “relaxation”-related products was up 150% by the end of May; however, since then, there has also been a 124% increase in interest towards cannabis products associated with a “happy” effect.

Marketing efforts in the early days of cannabis legalization focused on education, and the health and wellness space remains an opportunity for brands to connect: 38% of Canadian consumers don’t know the difference between THC and CBD, with a similar number not understanding the potential health benefits.