Talley Wettlaufer, vice president of retail for multistate cannabis operator Curaleaf, says she was one of the few people who tried to convince a recruiter that she wasn’t the right fit for her current role.

“I got an email from a recruiter on LinkedIn, just saying, ‘Hey, would you talk to us?’” Wettlaufer says. “And I said, ‘Sure, I’ll have a conversation.’ I was really excited about the opportunity [with Curaleaf ]—such growth, such evolution. It was really a time to create something and to take my familiar retail experiences and lessons from that and put it into a new industry that really hadn’t been defined. That said, I was like, ‘Are you sure you want me? Are you sure you think I’m the right candidate?’”

Wettlaufer, in fact, was the right candidate. She has over two decades of expertise in global merchandising, retail expansion, and profit loss and management, and previously held roles with J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Petco. She moved to California shortly after the state launched legal adult-use sales in 2018 and says “it’s been an amazing journey since then.”

Here, Wettlaufer reflects on the customer experience, evolving retail trends, and the industry’s biggest challenges and opportunities this year.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for style, length and clarity.

Melissa Schiller: Can you highlight some of the lessons from retail in other industries that you’ve carried over to the cannabis industry?

Talley Wettlaufer: I think great service is important no matter what industry you’re in. So, it’s great service whether you’re in an apparel store, whether you’re in a restaurant—it’s common across any industry. Every customer has an experience. I think one of the pieces is constantly looking at, how do we deliver a great customer experience? How do we make sure that we’re meeting our customer in whatever way they want to be met in whatever shopping experience? We all have moments where sometimes we want to be fast and frictionless, and we want to be in and out. Sometimes, we want to browse. Sometimes, we want to have conversations. I think that has been an important guiding principle of how I’ve looked at creating retail at Curaleaf. How do we meet our customer wherever they are on their journey, and meet them in each of those scenarios?

[I’ve been] looking at our team and our associates and making sure that we’re delivering a positive experience for them, too. Communication, consistency and breeding loyalty to Curaleaf is important. [Our employees are] our best advocates, so it’s really important that we have teams that have ownership and understanding and support and can really speak well and fluidly to our customers and deliver that experience. At the end of the day, it really is up to our field team to be able to deliver [that].

MS: What is something most people don’t realize about working in the cannabis industry?

TW: How driven everybody is in the industry and how you need to be driven. Really being able to embrace change and adapt and pivot [is important], whether suddenly you’re moving to adult-use, to a changing regulatory environment, to new products, to the constantly changing customer expectation. You have to be dynamic, and you have to be passionate about what you do to be successful.

If you haven’t gone into a dispensary yet or don’t understand the market, I think that can be surprising. I think people think about it as this clandestine [industry where] everybody gets high all the time, and it is a more familiar retail experience than I think most people understand.

One of the comments I [receive] is people not understanding that all the products come from the state. There’s no cross-border commerce, [and] people just are constantly surprised about, “Hey, I can’t get what I bought in California in Arizona?” Or [they are surprised] that actually everything is made there. That’s just an eye-opener for them, like, “Why don’t I have the same product I bought here?” Well, you can’t. It’s still federally illegal, so interstate commerce isn’t available to us. And truly, all the products are local and really based on the market dynamics.

MS: What’s the biggest challenge in managing a multi-state cannabis operator like Curaleaf? How have you worked to overcome this challenge in your current role?

TW: The various markets’ maturity and the variety of regulatory landscapes we operate in. I think you have such differences from the West Coast, whether it’s Arizona or Colorado, to an East Coast market to everything in between, between medical and adult-use and [market] maturity.

One of my biggest focuses is to build on commonalities. How do we have a strong foundation [with] people, processes, and customer experience and not get caught up in all the nuances? It’s very easy to sit there and say, “This market is different. These products are different.” And you get so caught up in the differences that you don’t get a lot of leverage, and it’s a lot harder to change. So, that’s been a big piece for us, is building that foundation to be able to get leverage and to be able to react to market changes quickly.

MS: What are some of the biggest opportunities that you see for the cannabis industry this year? Is there anything you’re particularly excited about, whether it’s retail trends, legislation or regulatory changes?

TW: I think adult-use [legalization] in the East Coast markets is really welcome and will be really exciting. New Jersey hopefully will allow adult-use [sales] in the next couple months. We know that we’ve got Connecticut and New York that have all passed adult-use. So, that’s super exciting. It’s a huge unlock. It’s bringing new customers into this space and really expanding this industry. Those are highly visible markets, and I think it’s really exciting.

In addition, new products—the continued evolution of products and the more sophisticated [products] and the variety we’re seeing in the markets, whether it’s the growth of the beverage space [or] new edibles. We’ve just launched, in most of our markets, [Select] X Bites, which is an extended-release edible. The technology and products, between that [and] beverages—I think the evolution of products in the market and the new consumers in the space are really exciting and great challenges for us.

MS: What are some of your shorter- and longer-term goals in your role at Curaleaf?

TW: Building a common foundation. How do we have common systems, processes, people?

And then we’re continuing to evolve the customer experience. The customer is changing. Our goal is to have that familiar retail experience so that when you’re walking into a dispensary or you’re walking into another retail store, it feels comfortable, it feels like something that you know and that you’ve been through before. Buying cannabis shouldn’t feel illicit. It shouldn’t feel different. And we’re continuing to do that as expectations change, as products get more nuanced. How do we talk about that? How do we make sure that we have all the opportunities to educate in those places, whether it’s on our online venues, in-store [or] our team’s knowledge?

And then we’re continuing to grow and evolve. As I said, all the markets are in different places, so that’s the challenge. How do you take knowledge from some of the more sophisticated markets in the west, how do we take those experiences, and how do we play them back in some of our more developing markets?

MS: How is consumer education evolving as the industry matures? Do you find that customers are generally more knowledgeable now than they were, say, five years ago? Is there still a lot of consumer education to be done?

TW: I think it really depends on which market you’re operating in. I think that’s one of the challenges, is where you are. Obviously, there’s a sophistication on the West Coast. I’m in Arizona today, and you’re talking to most people and they’re talking about higher dosages, [they’re] more familiar with different products, terpenes, different onset times, different form factors. There’s more competition compared to some of the more medical markets like New Jersey where folks have been brought the vertical product, much smaller selection, much more highly regulated. Or even in Pennsylvania, that doesn’t have edibles—I think those are the nuances that you deal with from market to market.

MS: How have cannabis retail trends evolved during your time in the industry, and how do you envision cannabis retail evolving as the industry matures?

TW: I think a great retail experience is a great retail experience whether you’re buying cannabis or clothes or going to a restaurant. I think service is service, and I think the foundation [is] making it more familiar, making it a place where people feel comfortable, that it doesn’t feel illicit, that it’s a warm and welcoming place that has hospitality and empathy and a great understanding of the customer, and then continuing to deliver on that. That’s not going to change. The customer will change, and our job is to continue to move and evolve and listen and adapt. You go into some of the older dispensaries, and they feel a little dark and they feel a little illicit compared to the new ones that are brighter [and more] light filled. You’ve got technology working, whether it’s ordering on tablets or an open concept, display cases, storytelling, different pieces of screen and video—I think all of that has continued to evolve, just like any other retail business.

And that’s really our focus, to take our cues from other industries and bring it back to the cannabis space. The beauty is that we don’t have a ton of legacy or history that has guided us [and] forced us into a footprint or boxes. We have a blank space to create that and listen to our customers, which is what we’re good at. Guiding someone on their cannabis journey is all about listening, understanding what the customer needs and wants, and recommending products. So many people are new to this space, so it’s leveraging that and putting that into our retail experience.

MS: What advice would you offer to new or existing cannabis operators who want to succeed in this industry?

TW: Don’t overcomplicate it. I’ve said this before to the team—it’s easy to really get wrapped up in the regulatory environment, which, don’t get me wrong, is complicated, and all the nuances can be overwhelming. But I think, again, look at, what is the best service you’ve gotten? What was your best deployment experience? Have those things to guide you in your decision making, and really focus on the customer and what’s right for them.

And understand [that] it’s going to evolve and change. One of the things I always say to my team is, focus on the immediate and incremental improvement. How do you continue to get better and listen to your customer?

I think the cannabis space and Curaleaf have been so exciting and growing and just continuing to evolve and deliver beyond what customer expectations are. I think it’s a great space to be in.

Editor’s note: Talley Wettlaufer serves on the Cannabis Conference 2022 Advisory Board, which is comprised of cultivators, and dispensary and business professionals who were carefully selected for their industry leadership, expertise and passion for the advancement of the commercial cannabis market. Cannabis Conference 2022 will be held Aug. 23-25, 2022, at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.