ELEVATE Northeast Retail Event

How To Design the Cannabis Retail Experience

On May 8th, Elevate Northeast held an educational panel on cannabis retail design. The four panelists for the sold-out event moderated by Sam Aquillano, Executive Director of the Design Museum Foundation, engaged the audience on how to influence the buyer’s experience and trends in retail.

The four design professionals included: Heather Boesch, Senior Director at IDEO, David Gruning, principal at David Gruning Communications, Michael Jager, Founding Partner/Chief Creative Officer of Solidarity of Unbridled Labour, Penelope Nam-Stephen, a Cannabis and Consumer Goods executive.

They offered practical suggestions for all kinds of retail operators on what to consider when making design choices to impact the customer experience. Here are some of the highlights. (Statements are paraphrased.)

Focus on a Specific Market

Boesch: You have to understand what part of the market you’re targeting. Tourists? Seniors? Cannabis newbies? Take the micro-market approach so that people can better find you and you can better cater to their needs. Even in more mature markets there’s still room for everyone. State by state there’s still a lot of opportunity. Make a good impression on the customer the first time.


Jager: The great leveling will happen when federal legalization comes. What will protect you is your ideas and relationships.

Differentiate Yourself and Do It Consistently

Nam-Stephen: Luxury brands have a very strong point of view. There are things you can learn from them to fend off the big guys. They differentiate themselves. Hermes, for example, has a consistent look, packaging, everything encompasses their DNA. However, don’t mimic luxury looks if you’re not luxury. The biggest mistake is saying you want to be like Apple. You have to create a new experience. Look to the beauty space for inspiration on how to differentiate.

Customers Seek Livability

Boesch: Customers aren’t going to change their point of view (POV). A lot of POV lives at the level of livability. Direct-to-consumer stores are now about discovery because many people are new to these cannabis products. They will soon be stocking up as regulars. Think about logistics and making buying easy for them.

Giving Back—Keeps You Relevant

Aquillano: We’re in a room full of white people trying to be authentic. How can that be done when the money in the legal industry is so white but historically the industry has been diverse?

Jager: There’s a lot of people in prison. Will you step up and help them? As operators we can employ good people [from impacted communities]. Also, to increase authenticity, to make the business relevant and resonant, don’t go off and design in a vacuum and buy a bunch of research. You’ll learn more by talking to people.

Patagonia is an example of a company that has been helped by its activism because it has kept them relevant. Patagonia uses a retail footprint activism. Each store teaches people how to be activists in their community.

Nam-Stephen: Cannabis packaging is an environmental disaster. Set up recycling programs. That’s resonating with customers. Across all levels of purchasing power, people care. As prices drop, those things will mean more.

The Customer Experience is Holistic

Boesch: In cannabis people are operating in silos. There are brands, dispensaries, sites like Weedmaps. They all work separately. If I have a bad experience, am I blaming the brand, the dispensary, the people who sent me there? The customer is seeing things holistically. Their blame may be misplaced. Set up appropriate partnerships across different modes. Thinking you can operate in a silo is naive.

And most good customer experiences are with e-commerce. How do you want them to perceive you in person after they have experienced you online? How does your store change who is new or who is afraid? How does the customer feel when they’ve left?


Nam-Stephen: I was surprised everything [in the cannabis industry] is a pun. Like “budtenders.” Get rid of that word. ‘Sales associate’ works just fine. At the same time, keep it real. Industries get less and less sexy over time. Don’t look sterile like CVS while we legitimize the industry.

Get on ELEVATE’s mailing list to be informed of details for Part 2 of our Retail Design discussion! Click here to sign up.

About the author: Christine Giraud, a freelance writer in Boston, has been writing about cannabis for publications like Foottraffik, The Boston Globe, Civilized, Her(b) Life, Info Today, and ZocDoc.

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