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The Design of a Feeling

Retail design for cannabis stores has been a fascinating development to follow this last year since the legalization of cannabis sales in Canada. Legalization certainly shifted the perception of cannabis, undeniably for the positive; however, stigma is an exasperatingly sticky force.

Opening a cannabis store thus became a creative endeavour to appeal to both experienced consumers as well as new consumers, who not only have little experience by way of consumption or product knowledge, but also come with a ripened reluctance to be associated with what they perceive cannabis culture to be, an image that errs on the side of shady. This is no small feat! However, the answer has been developed for us, and it’s all in the design.

The Design of Nostalgia

So how does one go about designing and creating a welcoming atmosphere? Ontario-based cannabis retailer, Superette, took the approach of simplicity, with the vision of co-founders Drummond Munro and Mimi Lam being a nod to nostalgia. Using both a brand company and a design firm to properly execute the vision in-store and online, the result is a vintage throwback diner-esque aesthetic that proficiently reads fun, accessible, and friendly. Although the design is smart, it is low-tech. When you walk in, you can choose colour-coded shopping baskets, red implying you don’t need help, and green being an invitation for assistance; the menus are plastic and you can browse them on barstools at the bud bar (or over a game of pong!).

The diner aesthetic is complete with pre-rolls in red plastic baskets, an ode to old time French fries, and instantly igniting a craving for a chocolate malt milkshake.

Lauren Davie, VP of Retail and Sales for Superette, speaks to the importance of personal touch. Customers are greeted by a host (so the first interaction isn’t with a security guard) and a menu is offered, serving as a “handshake” to really lock in the vibe of being warm, open, and friendly. She also speaks to the success of the colour-coded baskets, which revealed a huge need from the consumer standpoint for accessibility. There is a lot of overwhelming aspects for new customers, from language to product knowledge to how to consume, and so the atmosphere at Superette is specifically designed (through retro-appeal) to take that anxiety out of the process.

The Design of Familiarity

Hobo Cannabis Company’s aesthetic is also friendly and approachable, but their angle is more akin to a comfy living room, something that Harrison Stoker, VP of Brand, says is inherently familiar. Think comfy armchairs, coffee tables with art magazines, and highly tactile accoutrements such as plants and hanging Peruvian rugs. Design is not a new concept to Hobo, and this is clear when you step into one of their stores. Being a division of the Donnelly Group, they were able to tap into decades of experienced operators in the hospitality industry, which allowed them to very successfully marry the customer experience with the transactional experience.

Their welcoming environment is not just about comfortable familiarity though. The living room aesthetic is perfectly fused with the science of sales. In addition to room layout and flow, Hobo offers multiple versions of sales conveniences to suit the varied demographic of consumers. The store is set up almost with a “choose your own adventure” feel, meaning there are multiple point-of-sales (POS) systems throughout the store: head directly to a kiosk for purchase, engage with a sales associate, or head straight to the counter to purchase from a budtender.

Their variety of choice applies to their product as well, in that Hobo designed a “decision tree” to flatten the wild complexities of the cannabis plant–meaning instead of having to understand whether you want sativa, indica, THC, CBD, or the infinite blends of all of the above, you can choose your experience through a feeling: Move, Lift, Balance, Calm, and Rest.

The Intelligence Behind Design

The success of Superette and Hobo doesn’t mean you should replicate their design, but it does mean you should replicate their attention to professionalism. SevenPoint Interiors specializes in custom retail solutions for the cannabis industry, and Neal Claassen, Head of Business Strategy, passionately voices the significance of hiring professional companies to execute that vision (SevenPoint builds out the design, and proudly works as a matchmaker for their clients with appropriately paired brand and design firms). He says many people are hesitant to commit the money upfront (upwards of $25-35k) to have professional companies execute their vision, however, there are huge financial implications to proper retail layout, including path to purchase, ensuring no lineups, providing adequate space for employees to operate, and ensuring your product is secure. These details ensure your efforts to create a welcoming environment actually materialize. Additionally, should you ever want to expand, having professionals handle your design means you will have proper blueprints ready and available should you ever wish to build your vision up and out.

The Design of Staff

Another important factor to atmosphere is your staff, which should go without saying. And to both Davie of Superette, and Stoker of Hobo, staffing is a massively respected undertaking.

Your employees are the face of your brand, and they endorse your vision.

At Superette, Davie speaks to how much they lean into shadow shifts, as peer-to-peer coaching is a strong indicator of a good fit, and of setting the proper tone for new staff. Stoker says his first hire was the most important decision he made for Hobo when he was their Director of Training and Recruitment. By hiring someone with a lot of experience in that area, as well as cannabis, they have been able to build an extremely strong culture that draws good talent to them, instead of having to look outwards for it.

The Design of a Feeling

When you walk into a cannabis store that works, it is seamless, which is what gives people the impression it is easy, but that could not be further from the truth, at least not when you try to take it all on yourself. Designing a feeling comes with a lot of respect to design that is thoughtful and smart, and this is not something to be overlooked. As the cannabis industry grows and evolves, be prepared to be dynamic, and do not hesitate to lean into those who provide specialized services. Your atmosphere is worth the investment.