Has CBD officially entered the mainstream?

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 26 No. 2
Volume 26
Issue 2

What do CBD’s latest sales data tell us about consumer acceptance?

Photo © AdobeStock.com/ Jennifer

Photo © AdobeStock.com/ Jennifer

What do tattoos, piercings, and CBD have in common?

Probably a lot, when you get down to it. But one similarity that stands out in particular is that while all were once edgy enough to be downright countercultural, they’re now so mainstream that everyone from your accountant to your kid’s kindergarten teacher has likely shelled out cash on one or the other.

Unlike tattoos or piercings, however, CBD has a scientific record verifying its wellness benefits. (Sorry, body art.) And as such, it’s profited from the self-care trend that was a “thing” even before COVID-19 kicked it into the mainstream.

So it’s only appropriate that CBD—and its sales—are claiming a seat at the mainstream table.

Seat at the Table

As far as Joseph Dowling, CEO of CV Sciences Inc. (San Diego, CA), is concerned, CBD’s been settling into its mainstream position for some time now.

“From my perspective,” he says, “CBD’s actually been mainstream at least since passage of the 2018 Farm Bill gave validity to the space and brought mainstream retailers into the mix.”

But neither the compound nor the category has “exploded in growth or sales yet,” he wagers, which is why he believes “there’s still potential for great success in the future.”

Highs and Lows

But don’t just take Dowling’s word for it.

Cannabis data company BDSA (Louisville, CO) tracks legal cannabis sales in dispensary channels across Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Nevada, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. And according to Brendan Mitchel-Chesebro, an industry-intelligence analyst for the firm, CBD-containing products benefitted from a “significant boost” at the pandemic’s outset, with dispensary-based monthly dollar sales across California, Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon, in particular, rising roughly 20% from January to June of 2020.

That said, the sector has witnessed “significant price compression” since the third quarter of 2021, Mitchel-Chesebro continues, “leading to most mature markets seeing sales stagnate or decline in 2022.”

The usual suspects are to blame, not least of which is a challenging macroeconomic environment. And while cannabis may be a “sticky” good in that fans won’t easily abandon it just because of price hikes, “As consumers deal with high inflation and the rising cost of essentials like gas and groceries,” Mitchel-Chesebro says, “some likely are purchasing less cannabis.”

Going Native

Nevertheless, mainstream acceptance proceeds apace, with BDSA’s spring-2022 Consumer Insights Survey finding more than 50% of consumers in domestic adult-use markets claiming past-six-month cannabis consumption.

“Notably,” Mitchel-Chesebro points out, “states that recently legalized adult-use are seeing consumer participation grow faster than in the past.”

A case in point is New York, which legalized adult use in March 2021 and subsequently saw its consumer participation grow from about 20% in spring 2020 to roughly 45% two years later. Similarly, after California legalized cannabis in 2016 and launched adult-use sales in January 2018, participation rose from about 30% in spring 2018 to about 45% by spring 2021.

Edible Evidence

BDSA’s survey also found edibles holding onto their spot as America’s most widely consumed CBD “form factor,” Mitchel-Chesebro says, with around 75% of CBD consumers claiming past-six-month edibles consumption, compared to 30% claiming past-six-month consumption of CBD inhalables and 50% claiming past-six-month CBD topical use.

Dowling also sees edibles as a key CBD delivery form, characterizing gummies as “by far consumers’ favored product and delivery type.” Softgels and capsules come in a distant second despite being “recognizable formats that most people are already comfortable with,” he adds, and though CBD beverages have been trending, “They’re tricky to master with FDA compliance,” Dowling concedes.

As for prevailing doses, “We recommend that consumers new to CBD start at a low dose and slowly increase their intake until they find their sweet spot,” Dowling advises, with that sweet spot settling in around the 15- to 50-mg range in most products, per his observations.

Sleep, anxiety, and pain are the core need states that drive most consumers to CBD shelves, Dowling continues, and though many purchase their CBD online, he’s seen them turn to natural specialty stores and mass-market retailers, including large supermarkets and chains, for product.

Cannabinoid Competition

Of course, dispensaries are another important CBD venue, and BDSA studies their activity closely. That being the case, Mitchel-Chesebro says, “While CBD has a solid place in the dispensary channel, especially in the ingestibles category, BDSA data do show that CBD products make up a smaller share of total ingestible SKUs now compared to years past.”

How much smaller? The company’s retail sales-tracking data from Q3 2022 show that approximately 25% of ingestible products sold across California, Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon contained CBD, compared to roughly 35% of such products in Q3 2020.

One reason for that dip may be competition. Notes Mitchel-Chesebro, “A trend we see that could threaten CBD’s prominence is the rise of other hemp-derived cannabinoids being sold through ecommerce and retail channels in general.”

Those cannabinoids, including delta-8 THC, THC-O (a synthetic THC acetate ester), and even CBD “cousins” like CBN, CBDa, and more, offer consumers an alternative method of realizing the same, or close to the same, health benefits as CBD.

Consider the case of CBN: BDSA data show that 40% of consumers cite a better night’s sleep as a reason for consuming CBD. But given that CBN “specifically addresses the sleep need state,” Mitchel-Chesebro points out, “more brands are using CBN content to reach consumers looking for sleep-aid products.”

Dowling is more sanguine about how alternative cannabinoids may influence CBD sales, going so far as to celebrate the “promising preliminary research emerging on compounds like CBG, CBN, CBDa, and more,” he says. “But as with CBD, more research is needed to showcase just how these cannabinoids affect different need states and contribute to the entourage effect.”

Green Rush

And therein lies the crux of what he believes will make or break CBD’s future.

As Dowling explains, one unintended consequence of the fast spread of CBD legalization was a sort of “green rush” of companies hoping to capitalize on the popularity and profit potential associated with the space.

“This sheer influx of CBD brands created an extremely competitive environment and prevented individual companies from seeing the positive impact of rising cannabis sales,” he recalls. And that, he claims, held the sector back.

What’s more, the crowded CBD shelves that confronted consumers after both passage of the 2018 Farm Bill and the emergence of COVID-19 created “confusion and misunderstanding of the product,” Dowling continues. “Bad actors sold CBD products that didn’t have scientific backing or testing standards, and released low-quality, ineffective inventory onto the market that lessened consumer trust in the cannabinoid. This wreaked havoc rather than increasing stability. The additional noise hurt the category, intimidated consumers with the sheer number of options, and tarnished CBD’s reputation as an ingredient.”

Crazy Quilt

And as if that weren’t bad enough, the hodgepodge of regulations across legal markets added insult to injury by hampering CBD’s growth.

“It’s hard to scale a product successfully with more than 15 different markets imposing unique requirements and regulations,” Dowling contends. “Inconsistent regulations also allow bad actors to slip into the industry—putting consumers at risk with unregulated, untested product and sowing distrust when their claims are unsubstantiated.”

Addressing these gaps at the state and federal levels would let brands “scale new heights,” Dowling declares.

Speak for Yourself

“More than anything else,” Dowling concludes, “it’s the acceptance of everyday consumers that’s the best evidence of CBD value as an addition to daily life. Seeing your neighbor use CBD and enjoy its benefits makes a real impact on how society views it. A casual product recommendation from a friend or coworker illustrates CBD’s normalcy.”

And those recommendations will be more forthcoming as products become more accurate and effective in making their case.

“The biggest factor that’ll increase sales is preventing operators from overstating CBD’s power,” Dowling insists. “We can lift all boats if we’re honest about what products do and market them accordingly, informing consumers about exactly what they can expect and letting the products speak for themselves.”

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