Inside story of how this Toronto pot shop is competing with big retailers

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Although Axes Smoke Cannabis opened its doors in June last year, the start was far from expected.

The Toronto-based store resembled closer to a Service Ontario as opposed to a dispensary. “Management had to encourage the owner to rebrand as soon as possible, otherwise, we would have been smoked out by the competition,” notes Tatiana in an email. “We hired a marketing and creative branding company to help make Axes Smoke more inviting for customers and immediately the interior of the store was transformed!”

With the interiors transformed, the next step was giving back to the community they wanted to cater to. From offering free space for artists to showcase their work to backing a cause every month, the female-led brand believes that even though they exist “to sell cannabis, any business can be a springboard to contributing back to its community.

What’s been the most surprising part of the job?

Tatiana Pacheco and Jessica Zepeda: We have had both Hollywood and Bollywood celebrities become our regulars during the pandemic. Being listed as one of blogTO’s “5 most notable new cannabis stores” at the end of 2020 was also a big surprise, considering we opened our doors back in June.

Why is art, especially local art, a huge focal point for the store?

T & J: The art collective idea was born out of the need to distinguish ourselves from the competition. We knew that Queen Street West had always been an artist hub and so we allowed the area to inspire the interior and what better way to do that than to showcase artists from the neighborhood.

Art by Dillon Phantharangsy (IG: @california_daydreams)

The best way to do that was to offer artists, at any level, free wall space. We even had an amazing muralist named Rowell Soller do a live art installation inside the store back in August for our re-grand opening of Axes Smoke.

What are some of the best-selling products?

How is the store unique compared to the rest?

T & J: In July, we started Keep the Change program, in which the staff and management would pool our tips together and donate to a different organization, cause, or fundraiser every month. The amount would vary, and sometimes management would match the tips to create a greater donation. We’ve donated to Black Lives Matter — Toronto, a fundraiser organized by Unit2 called Solidarity with QTBIPOC who were raising funds for racialized youth, and to the Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction. Even though our business exists to sell cannabis, any business can be a springboard to contributing back to its community.

As an independent retailer, what challenges do you face?

T & J: The biggest challenge for us has been the biggest challenge for everyone, which is the pandemic. Outside of that, the industry itself was already becoming oversaturated. With both functioning authorized retailers and others awaiting approval, there’s a lot of competition including our wholesaler the Ontario Cannabis Store. There are also many stores coming to Toronto that are based outside of the province, so it becomes a little more difficult every day when you are one of three stores on a single block.

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