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Marijuana Dispensaries Are Getting Face-Lifts To Blaze Past The Competition

Cannabis companies are taking greater pains to design stores that will set them apart from the competition — especially in states where recreational marijuana use is now legal.


While medical marijuana is now legal across 29 states, recreational use is legal in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia. In many cases, pot dispensary aesthetics have been an afterthought for entrepreneurs in marijuana-friendly markets where cannabis stores are not overly regulated.

“When you’re first legalizing and implementing adult-use regulations, design is one of the last things you end up thinking about, especially when you’re dealing with a substance that is still federally illegal. You’re just trying to get the doors open, products on the shelves and customers through the door,” cannabis expert and Grasslands CEO Ricardo Baca said. 

“A lot of emerging markets are becoming aware that they need to create a retail environment in which their customers feel safe and comfortable and stay longer, which means they spend more money.”

Transforming medical marijuana dispensaries into vibrantly designed cannabis boutiques requires an infusion of capital that, for a cash business with no access to bank financing and razor-thin margins, can at times be a hard pill to swallow.

To transform that space to attract and retain both new and seasoned cannabis users, experience and creating a sense of place is key. High Road Design Studio owner and award-winning designer Megan Stone told cannabis news outlet Leafly that the traditional pot shop experience left a lot to be desired.

Many original dispensaries still have an old second-hand record store feel about them, according to Marijuana Venture, with bland coloring and dim lighting. In addition, more often than not pot shops are in somewhat sketchy neighborhoods due to strict zoning requirements and landlord bias. Experts say all of these factors combined do not help put customers at ease about the products they are purchasing. 

“Day in and day out, people are coming to dispensaries — oftentimes for a product that has saved or significantly improved their quality of life— and their experience has to resonate with that fact,” Stone said. 

Barbary Coast in San Francisco

From the branding of the lobby to the brightness of lighting and the signage used in stores to help educate patients and establish brand awareness, cannabis boutiques are moving away from that dim-lit, bland image by using vibrant color schemes and design elements to make lasting impressions with customers  — and to reverse stigma. 

Showrooms are now a big part of the offering. These are spaces where customers can view a sampling of the products available for sale and consult with an employee before purchasing. Some shops are going the extra mile and creating separate consultation rooms for privacy and safety purposes. 

Newport Beach-based Blum, a pot retail operator owned by Terra Tech Corp., is focused on just that — patient care and safety and the reversal of stigma in the industry. The company, which has plans to open its seventh store in San Leandro in Q2, uses design to educate customers about the products they are consuming. These stores resemble more of a private office, with waiting rooms that are separate from the bud bar and separate consultation rooms to chat with patients when needed. 

“We take more of an approach of lifestyle. Our ethos is premium quality cannabis with professional service, and we really hold true to that. We don’t have vending machines where you can come in, hit it and go. We want our staff to talk one-on-one with the patient or patrons, to truly have them understand what they’re consuming,” Terra Tech Director of Retail Operations Mikel Alvarez said. “Every element of our stores represents something about cannabis.”

From the black wall tiles of the bud bar, which Alvarez said represents ash, to the copper accents that represent the amber of a pre-roll or a joint, every store is identical so that when visitors enter a Blum store, they recognize the branding instantly. 

“We look like a high-end jewelry store,” Alvarez said. “Everything is laid out in front of you in glass.”

Consumption Lounges Soar High

Barbary Coast in San Francisco has a consumption lounge where patrons can partake of cannabis.

Barbary Coast in San Francisco is one of eight cannabis shops that allow pot consumption while on-site. The trend is rapidly growing and cannabis enthusiasts say it could change the way adults interact socially in the future. Instead of grabbing a cup of joe or meeting at a local bar, cannabis dispensaries could become the next hot spot. 

“This is truly the future of cannabis,” Baca said. “One thing our lawmakers have completely botched is this concept of public consumption. I mean [Colorado] legalized cannabis in 2012 and the sales started in January 2014 and here we are in mid-2018 and the only place you can legally consume your cannabis is your house, your private residence. And even then if you’re renting you still can’t consume in that apartment, house or condo in many situations.” 

Barbary Coast is different in that customers can bring their own edibles, vapes and such inside the shop to smoke. If needed, patrons can even borrow pipes, a volcano or bong to partake. 

“It’s a pretty normal dispensary [and] it’s good-looking,” Baca said. “But when you get to the end of the bar there’s another door and it goes into another room exactly the same size, only it's a gorgeous, beautiful decked-out lounge with leather seats and leather couches and opaque slider windows and it's all people consuming the products they’ve just purchased.”

Buds & Roses in Los Angeles

In terms of store design, Baca said pot retailers like Sparc (San Francisco Patient and Resource Center) and Buds & Roses in Los Angeles stand out for their superior design elements and strong branding.

“These operators recognized what was coming down the pipe — that eventually adult use [would be] legal in California — and they created these beautiful storefronts,” Baca said. “But if you went into Buds & Roses in Los Angeles and went to another dispensary a couple of miles away, chances are that other dispensary is not nearly as good looking or professional an experience as Buds & Roses.”

Alvarez said the arduous process of opening a cannabis shop, plagued with high costs, excessive red tape and landlords unwilling to lease and sell space to marijuana businesses, has eased compared to years past. 

“I think it’s becoming easier because the stigma is not as bad as it was back in the day. People understand the problems [and] they see the legitimacy behind the dispensaries,” he said. “People have more faith in the industry. The biggest thing is we just need to get legitimate banking so we can have that.”