The Newest Consumer(s): There’s more than just one kind of cannabis user

By Gregory Furgala

Canada has a new demographic — officially, at least. With legal cannabis widely available, consumers who partake now constitute a new set of data points, providing business owners, restaurant operators included, new insights into understanding and catering to them.

Market research firm Technomic is amongst those exploring the category. For the first quarter of 2019, Technomic sent out a survey based on its Ignite Consumer survey, a well-established tool measuring consumer restaurant and menu preferences, with questions added about cannabis use and restaurants. The result, Courting Cannabis Consumers, confirmed a handful of widely-held beliefs — it turns out that cannabis users really are more prone to cravings — but also demonstrated that cannabis users can’t simply be understood as a single monolithic category. Instead, the same demographic fault lines defining other groups continue to play a role. Age and health are key differentiators, for example, although other typically important factors, like income, play next to no role.

Fun and Function

Despite the media bandwidth cannabis occupies, Technomic’s study found that only a minority of Canadians intend to consume cannabis — it is a sizeable minority, though. Across demographics, 19 per cent planned to use cannabis recreationally, 11 per cent medicinally, and 9 per cent both recreationally and medicinally. Moreover, 70 per cent of recreational consumers visit restaurants once per week, a 20 per cent jump over their non-using counterparts, while 61 per cent of medicinal users do the same. They may not be as numerous non-users, but their habits are worth noting.

Perhaps the biggest predictor of restaurant usage amongst cannabis users is the reason they’re consuming cannabis to begin with. Recreational and medicinal users have different concerns and are looking to satisfy different needs when dining out. While the former tend to be health-agnostic, medicinal consumers are not, likely because of health concerns they’re treating with cannabis in the first place. The two categories track with age, as well, with consumers between the ages of 18 to 44 greatly over-indexed for recreational use compared to the general population. By contrast, 18- to 24-year-olds (Gen Z) indexed at 143, and 25- to 35-year-olds (Millennials) indexed at 175, and 35- to 44-year-olds indexed at 125. At over 45, that index drops to 60, making for a comparatively under-represented senior set amongst recreational smokers. Seventy per cent of recreational users also visit restaurants at least once per week. That older set still partakes though — the 65-plus group indexed at 134 for medicinal use. Generally speaking, young people enjoy cannabis for fun; seniors use it as a remedy.

Craving Convenience

While foodservice segments across the board benefit from recreational cannabis use, QSRs and convenience stores benefit most. Recreational users reported visiting them 28 and 25 per cent more often, respectively, than non-users. Cafes and retailers saw 22 per cent of consumers say they visit them more often, with that figure dropping to only 16 per cent more often for the upscale restaurant segment. As was noted, recreational users are eager to enjoy craveable options, particularly if they’re portable and name-brand. Those numbers are significantly lower for medicinal users, with only 15 per cent of respondents saying they go to QSRs more often, although food retailers remained somewhat consistent at 19 per cent.

Technology use is another notable differentiator, especially amongst the 18-45 segment dominating recreational use, and operators looking to insinuate their restaurants as the go-to post-toke spot should adjust accordingly. As a group, recreational cannabis users are more fluent with technology non-users, but what’s desired from it is different among age groups. Millennials, for example, are aging and accruing family and professional obligations. As a result, they’re typically more preoccupied with convenience, making speed and app-enabled ordering, pickup and delivery critical for this set. By contrast, Gen Z responds more favorably to free wifi and video entertainment.

Product Rollout

Cannabis users have different wants based on the reason they partake in the first place, as well as their age. But before taking them into account, restaurateurs ought to look around their dining room to get an idea of their core customer, then build outward from there. Given the diversity amongst cannabis users, most foodservice operators are likely catering to them in some respect already, so further capitalizing on at least one of the sub-demographics is likely a matter of adjusting, not overhauling.