American marijuana shops go under the knife, focus on retail design

Marijuana shops across the U.S. are getting some work done — a nip here, a tuck there and sometimes an entire face-lift.

Call it "Extreme Makeover: Dispensary Edition."

Pot shops, once sparsely decorated storefronts run by people more worried about DEA raids and federal seizures than LED display lights and high-end fixtures, are coming into their own. Owners are hiring big-name architects and trendy design firms. They're rebranding, using mood boards and open-staff discussions on aesthetics. And they're reinventing the way consumers shop for cannabis.

"We've got an LP player in the back, and we play records during the day so when people come in they have that aural, sensory thing going on," said Brendan Hill, co-founder of the Paper & Leaf cannabis shop on Bainbridge Island near Seattle. "When you hear Rod Stewart or the Police or the Grateful Dead or Buddy Rich and people are instantly taken back to the summer of '85 when they had that really great road trip with a bunch of friends, it means something.

"Shopping here is all about feeling connected," said Hill, a founding member of the rock band Blues Traveler.

Paper & Leaf's warm wood tones and art-gallery feel reflects the island's natural beauty and top-shelf residences. Similarly, a dispensary group looking to make a splash in Sin City wanted its marijuana shops to flash with attitude and color.

"Because we have three locations in Vegas, we really wanted a design that had a little Vegas flair to it," said Amy Almsteier, who designed the Blum shops in Nevada and California and is the branding manager for its parent company, Terra Tech. "They are still medical (in Nevada), and it was important to the local government that these shops feel like a doctor's office. So I thought, 'Well, why don't we make it more like a plastic surgeon's office?' "

As the Las Vegas store's sleek, futuristic design suggests, with its custom tiles and chic copper lighting, cannabis shops are maturing. In 2014 a marijuana industry publicist controversially told The New York Times that dispensaries "look like underground abortion clinics."

But this month, the Clinic, which operates pot shops in Colorado, Illinois and Nevada, opened its new flagship store in Denver — and its build-out cost the company more than $1 million, 10 times as much as one of the Clinic's first shops.

DENVER, CO - JULY 07: A new location for The Clinic, one of the larger marijuana retailers in Denver has a new location on 2020 S. Colorado Blvd. Photos of the shop July 7, 2016 shows the changes to its layout and design were utilized to improve the customer experience. (Photo By John Leyba/The Denver Post)A new location for The Clinic, one of the larger marijuana retailers in Denver has a new location on 2020 S. Colorado Blvd. Photos of the shop July 7, 2016 shows the changes to its layout and design were utilized to improve the customer experience.

John Leyba, The Denver Post

"Let's be industry-agnostic here," Clinic president and CEO Scott Thorn said as he showed off the new recreational and medical shop at 2020 S. Colorado Blvd. "We wanted to create a retail experience that measured up to stores in any industry. We wanted to be able to translate our brand into a physical and operational environment."

The Clinic spent $150,000 to build out its first Colorado medical marijuana dispensary in November 2009, and $100,000 on its second location. Clinic director of operations Ryan Cook said the leap forward to a million-dollar facility set a new standard and established a prototype for all Clinic locations moving forward — including a Las Vegas shop, which opened last week across the street from The Palms Hotel and Casino.

"To look at our earliest shops, which had great style for a new dispensary concept, and go from there to this facility where we put roughly a million dollars into it — or a little over a million, actually — it definitely shows," Cook said.

The new Denver Clinic location certainly stands apart. The first thing customers will notice in the ID-checking vestibule is the warm, natural light filling the store's open layout. A massive skylight is artfully secured with custom metal work in the brand's familiar molecule/honeycomb shapes. The wall along South Colorado Boulevard is all opaque, hurricane-glazed glass — "so it's essentially unbreakable," Cook said — that softly filters light during the day.

The art-meets-science aesthetic makes sense given that they're selling a drug that harnesses powerful and mysterious cannabinoids — some of which are potently psychoactive, most of which remain largely unstudied because the federal prohibition of marijuana makes research difficult.

The Clinic's glass-covered concentrates bar is perhaps its most striking design element, artfully displaying two different 50-gram slabs of extracts such as shatter or live resin — a segment of the industry that has seen major sales increases since the medical-only era. In 2013, extracts and concentrates (not including edibles) made up 7 percent of the Clinic's total retail sales. So far this year, extracts have accounted for 33 percent of  retail sales, marking a nearly 400 percent increase in that category in less than three years.

The importance of quality retail design shouldn't be underestimated, though it should go largely unnoticed by the customer when it's done well. Retail design experts say a store's architecture, layout and branding is a "silent salesperson" that engages customers when the staff is occupied. From there the formula's pretty simple: engaged customers stay longer and spend more money.

When Denver marijuana shop Good Chemistry secured a cannabis license in Aurora, owner Matthew Huron assembled a team that included brand strategists, graphic designers, architects, interior designers and others to create his new flagship store. The result is a smart, clean space that educates as it sells the Good Chemistry brand.

"The core value of our company is the passion and dedication and commitment to growing the finest cannabis we can possibly grow," Huron said. "We viewed the Aurora store as a window into that dedication and passion. We also wanted it to be a place where customers can continue to learn and explore and navigate through the world of cannabis."

Good Chemistry's Aurora store, with its plainspoken education components and kiosks that provide an opportunity for more depth, was so warmly received by customers that Huron and his team immediately brought the branding elements they could to their comparably tiny storefront on East Colfax Avenue in Capitol Hill, "but there are a lot of limitations there."

With the recent acquisition of an adjacent property, the 1,000-square-foot Good Chemistry could nearly triple to become the chain's Denver flagship in 2017.

Huron found out that thoughtful retail design works. But shoddy retail design can drive — and keep — customers away.

"It's important throughout any retail experience for someone to feel comfortable and welcome," said Paper & Leaf's Hill, who noted that neighboring wineries and tasting rooms have recently started to reach out to him about potential collaborative tours. "We used to be the red-haired stepchild."

As these cannabis business owners continue to invest in store design, some also acknowledge that they're fortunate to be able to focus on the presentation of their product in these keenly curated storefronts — whereas their predecessors had different concerns.

"Kudos to all the people who went before us who did take all those risks and were open for years and years with that constant threat of being closed down or having their property seized," Hill said. "We want to give them lots of props for paving the way and being the true frontiersman."

Because Nevada has set the benchmark in terms of regulating so-called vice industries, Terra Tech CEO Derek Peterson said he wasn't worried federal regulators would stop the opening of Blum in Las Vegas, freeing the company to go big with its design.

"And because it's Vegas, we're all stepping up our games," Peterson said. "It's not $1.99 steaks anymore. It's celebrity chefs and big nightclubs."

DENVER, CO - JULY 07: A new location for The Clinic, one of the larger marijuana retailers in Denver has a new location on 2020 S. Colorado Blvd. Photos of the shop July 7, 2016 shows the changes to its layout and design were utilized to improve the customer experience. (Photo By John Leyba/The Denver Post)A new location for The Clinic, one of the larger marijuana retailers in Denver has a new location on 2020 S. Colorado Blvd.

John Leyba, The Denver Post


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