As social distancing becomes a more entrenched part of our everyday lives, you may be thinking, “How many people do I want touching my stash?”

The team behind THRIVE Cannabis Marketplace took that very question into consideration when opening their fifth dispensary in Nevada. The new Southern Highlands location has an automated conveyor belt to deliver cannabis to paying customers. 

Founder and CEO Mitch Britten wanted a system that was not only efficient, but enhanced safety and security, drawing a strong line of separation between the employees who handle the product and the ones who handle the money. He initially considered a pneumatic tube system similar to what banks use, but when testing it out, he found that it was difficult to fit some of the packaging within the containers. So the company turned to the conveyor belt system, which isn’t much different in design from what you’d find at a dry cleaners. The main difference is the conveyor belt doesn’t start and stop. It’s always running. 

Once an order is placed, the back-room fulfillment team packs it up and places it in a bag that’s attached to the conveyor belt, which twists and turns on a 210-foot track above the store before arriving at the front counter. From beginning to end, the journey takes 70 seconds. Every order — in-house, delivery, curbside pickup — is carried out with the conveyor belt system.    

“There are a lot of advantages,” said Director of Compliance Ashley Blackwood. “In our previous dispensaries, you had to have a ton of cabinet space in our front-of-house, which caused a lot of issues … It was a little more cramped, a little less safe. Having [the product] back-of-the-house has really alleviated all of those issues.”

Rob Kachelriess

Only a few employees actually have access to the storage room, which limits the amount of hands touching the product — although masks and gloves are required anyway. “There are fewer people coming in contact with it, or even just being around it,” said Blackwood.  

Customers are already noticing the benefits of the conveyor belt. “It’s cool. It’s innovative,” said Renee, a transplant from Inglewood, California, who made a purchase during the dispensary’s grand opening weekend. She made a point to say the social-distancing aspect makes her more likely to come back. “I like the operation. Even the bags are socially distant,” she joked, noting the space between the transport containers on the belt.     

The format makes full-use of the 10,000 square-foot dispensary. By keeping inventory in the back, more space is opened up in the customer service area, where the large rectangular counter offers plenty of room for customers to be six feet apart while quizzing their budtenders through plexiglass about the latest flower, edibles and concentrates.   

“When you can only allow four people in the showroom, it’s very difficult to serve your customers in a way that makes sense to them and makes sense to us,” said Blackwood. “You don’t want someone standing in the lobby for hours on end. You want to get them in and out — and that’s a lot easier when you have a larger space to do that.”

Thrive is also the first dispensary in Nevada to introduce CocoonPod self-service kiosks as yet another way to enhance social distancing with technology. Customers can present ID, browse inventory, view specials and finalize transactions on their own with a digital screen. (Yes, there are ample amounts of hand sanitizer provided to use between turns on the kiosk.) 

The future of Thrive 

Thrive’s Southern Hills location is a dispensary that reflects the times. Even when the coronavirus is (hopefully) spoken of in the past tense soon, attention to sanitary habits and at least some degree of social distancing will likely stick around long-term — often with the help of technology and ingenuity. 

Thrive isn’t alone in Las Vegas. Planet 13 uses density cameras to maintain proper occupancy levels throughout its off-Strip superstore, which is in the process of expanding to 23,000 square feet and adding 40 points-of-sale to provide extra personal space between customers. The+Source has QR codes on display throughout its Las Vegas and Henderson dispensaries to browse the current selection and join a rewards program via smartphone. 

In addition to being practical, the conveyor belt is just plain fun. “People love it,” said Blackwood, comparing the excitement of receiving your purchase to spotting your luggage in an airport baggage claim. “They love watching it. They want to see their bag come down from the ceiling.”

The spectacle is complemented by a colorful art installation of quirky mannequins near the front entrance, continuing a trend of dispensaries evolving from dark, quiet, secretive shops to bright, open retail spaces, where visuals and interactive elements make buying cannabis even more attractive.   

“This has been a great way to normalize it,” said Blackwood. “I compare it to a Macy’s or Louis Vuitton, where it’s an actual retail store. You don’t have to be shy coming in. It is cannabis, it is fun, but it is legal. So come on in.” 

Photos by Rob Kachelriess

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