Home Month and Year August 2020 ALCANNA: A Local Success Story and Industry Leader

ALCANNA: A Local Success Story and Industry Leader

One of North America’s largest sellers of controlled substances discusses the art of responsible retail

President of Liquor Taranvir (Tank) Vander, president of Cannabis Marcie Kiziak and James Burns, vice chair and CEO. Photo by Rebecca Lippiatt.

ALCANNA Inc. is one of Canada’s largest retailers of wine, spirits, beer and cannabis. Proudly headquartered in Edmonton, ALCANNA owns and operates more than 250 Wine And Beyond, Liquor Depot, Ace Liquor, and Nova Cannabis outlets in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. Since its inception in 1993, the focus of ALCANNA has been on being a leader in the responsible art of selling controlled substances.

“Our motto is ‘the art of responsible retail,’ because it is truly an art,” says James Burns, vice chair and CEO. “It’s more than abiding by the laws of controlled substances. It’s also doing the right things for the communities we live in. That is what we keep in mind at all times. As the biggest retailer for controlled substances in the province, we are expected to set the standard in the industry. Being the leader is a role we embrace.”

ALCANNA intentionally positions itself to provide what Burns calls “something for everyone.”

“Our banners service different parts of the market, from small shopping centres and rural locations with Liquor Depot and Ace Liquor, to the immersive experience of Wine And Beyond, and the education and variety of products at Nova Cannabis.”

The service doesn’t stop there. ALCANNA gives back robustly to the communities it operates in, contributing more than $7 million in charitable funds to date. The company is also a major job provider, with more than 2,200 on the team.

Achieving its size and leadership in the industry, however, has never been easy.

“There are always challenges when working with regulated products,” admits President of Liquor Taranvir (Tank) Vander. “There is always added responsibility to ensure you are following the rules. Fortunately, all our staff are very well trained to identify and prevent minors or intoxicated customers from purchasing products across all our banners.”

“Cannabis is interesting in that we follow different regulations than for liquor,” adds President of Cannabis Marcie Kiziak, “Our regulations are closer to the tobacco industry, and it’s an incredibly niche market.”

Despite being one of the biggest retailers in Canada, ALCANNA is not the only one, and competition in the controlled substance market is fierce. ALCANNA stands out because of its focus on leading responsibly, and its relentless attention to customer service.

“Our liquor stores have three distinct banners,” explains Vander. “We pride ourselves in providing industry-leading customer service and competitive pricing. If you are looking for something unique, Wine And Beyond has more than 7,500 wines, beer, and spirits. It’s a shopping experience in itself and has the biggest footprint of its kind in Canada. ACE and Liquor Depot are convenience models that service smaller communities in addition to having a large presence in neighbourhoods across Edmonton and Calgary. Whichever banner you prefer, our knowledgeable staff help you pick the right product at a great price.”

Knowledgeable staff was important for Kiziak’s department too, especially since cannabis retail was completely uncharted waters in Canada.

“We didn’t know what to expect at first,” she says. “A lot of our customers had a relationship with cannabis before legalization. Matching or exceeding that experience was our anticipated challenge. Also, supply and quality were issues at the beginning – not anymore, but when everything got started. Cannabis is also very different geographically. What sells well in one neighbourhood is different from another neighbourhood.” Kiziak admits that while they all had to learn about cannabis retail by trial, error and experience, “We’ve proven to have done a great job so far and it is a very exciting time for this market. We are continuing to see the market evolve in ways we never thought possible.”

Some of the other challenges with cannabis is that it cannot be warehoused. It is ordered weekly. It is also restrictive in how it can be moved from store to store. While Vander can pull stock from one store and drive it to another if necessary, Kiziak’s team cannot do the same. Stocking and inventory management of cannabis are key, something at which Kiziak and her team are determined to excel.

Despite the challenges, it’s exciting to be at the forefront of a new industry. Kiziak fondly remembers the lineup that went for blocks at Nova’s Whyte Ave location on opening day.

“People say it was the most fun they ever had in a lineup!” Kiziak laughs. “To see people bonding over their experiences and the anticipation of the stores – it was fantastic. There was an incredible amount of energy. You just knew something had changed in Canada on that day.”

While the banners, such as Nova, are well known, the name ALCANNA is not.

“We operate pretty much under the radar corporately,” Burns acknowledges. “Our brands are extremely well known but not who owns them, and that’s okay. Our customers aren’t that interested in who owns the stores as long as they get great value and a great experience in them. However, to continue being a leader in the art of responsible retail, we have decided to raise our profile in the city so we can lead by example. In addition to the way we run our outlets, just in the last year we have made a $250,000 donation to Food Banks Alberta, hands-on volunteering at the Mustard Seed, worked with Humane Animal Rescue Team (HART), Dogs with Wings, and much more.”

“Also,” Vander adds, “people don’t realize that we are a local company. We launched in, and headquarter in, Edmonton. People assume that ALCANNA is some company from down east, but that’s not the case.”

“We are here, and we are not moving,” emphasises Vander. “I’ve been in Edmonton for 12 years, moving form BC after coming to Canada from India. Edmonton is unlike anywhere else that I’ve lived. It’s a close knit but very welcoming community for new people. It’s very easy to get involved in the city. People are hardworking and very earnest. There is a culture here in Alberta about earning ones’ keep and working hard.”

Kiziak, who was born in Vermillion and has lived her whole life in or near Edmonton, concurs. “Edmonton has a very warm, vibrant community feel that is often missing from big cities. The business community is very well connected. There are lots of opportunities to develop business, lots of networking, and lots of women in leadership roles in Edmonton” she adds.

Vander, Kiziak and Burns are all quick to give credit for ALCANNA’s success to its teams in the stores.

“Our front line staff are the biggest contributors to our success,” says Vandar.

“We have some of the best in the industry. We are very proud of the teams we have,” says Kiziak.

“We don’t call this our ‘head office,’” notes Burns. “It’s the SSC – Store Support Centre, because without our team members in the field there is no business.”

ALCANNA has gone above and beyond to protect its teams and customers from COVID-19 by being one of the first to install plexiglass shields, enforce social distancing, increase sanitization, add floor decals, and more, but there is a threat that frustrates the management – and it is a threat that is very dangerous for liquor store staff.

Between 2018 and 2019, liquor store thefts in the Edmonton area grew by approximately 290 per cent, occurring, at their peak, an average of 26 times per day. The Edmonton Police Service (EPS) teamed up with ALCANNA to combat the growing problem.

“These thefts were largely fuelled by organized crime,” says Burns. “We know who is behind this because of who is openly bragging about the thefts on social media. Organized crime networks are taking advantage of people that are hooked on drugs like meth. They offer drugs in return for fulfilled ‘orders.’ Then, the restaurants and bars and even some other liquor retailers buy the liquor at a discount rate from the criminals.”

He shakes his head and says sternly, “During the COVID-19 shutdown when restaurants and bars were closed, thefts dropped dramatically, proving that restaurants and bars were buying the stolen product. These places should know better than to work with increasingly violent criminals that put our staff and customers at risk. We continue to work with the EPS and the Alberta government to put a stop to this.”

Despite the challenges of entering a new market like cannabis, operating safely during the pandemic, and putting a stop to the dangerous liquor store thefts, ALCANNA forges ahead with confidence.

“We are part of the community. Our stores are everywhere and we are a part of people’s lives,” smiles Burns. “Everyone needs to work together to get by and we are only as strong as the communities in which we operate. Working together is not just good for business, it benefits everyone.”

ALCANNA is proud of the progress it has made in leading the art of responsible retail, and for Nova being nominated (although they didn’t win) as Bud Tender and Store of the Year through Lift & Co’s annual Canadian Cannabis Awards. As Kiziak notes, the nomination in itself is strong validation of ALCANNA’s customer-focused goals. ACE and Liquor Depot have numerous recognitions through local community awards for being the best in the neighbourhood.

So, when you are at the top of your game and leading the industry, pioneering in new fields and serving the community, where do you go from there?

“Just watch us!” concludes Burns with a smile. “We are in a very competitive industry. We can’t sit back or we get left behind. Where do we go? We will just keep going forward.”

Learn more about ALCANNA at www.alcanna.com.