The past fifteen years have seen a major shakeup in brick-and-mortar retail. Changes in consumer spending, the emergence of ecommerce, and a shift toward the experience economy ushered in what was famously (and perhaps overly dramatically) dubbed the “retail apocalypse.” The mall, once an American institution on a par with church in its role as a community nexus, has endured a sharp decline, with Business Insider reporting just 700 malls remain in the United States—down from 2,500 in the 1980s. With a rumored commercial real estate crisis looming just over the horizon, the retail sector may be in for even more uncertainty.
And yet, in-person retail has a distinct advantage over ecommerce in that it can offer varied and immersive experiences. Despite the headwinds, cannabis offers creative retailers some hope. The current license structure gives brick-and-mortar stores a protected role in the sale and distribution of weed, and this has made them fertile ground for novel and experimental concepts.
With competition comes a need to stand out, and just about every market in the country is seeing its dispensary count increase. We’ve looked at some of the most successful traditional retailers and dispensaries in the country to understand how they think outside the box to bring in new customers and deepen their relationship with existing clientele through novel concepts that amplify their brand.
One of the simplest ways to stand out locally and draw people into a store is by hosting an event. Having a steady, well-thought-out event program can help retailers connect with broad groups of people as well as specific, harder-to-reach demographic segments.
A dispensary is just a room that sells cannabis—like an entertainment venue is just a room that sells alcohol—and, with a little bit of imagination, a parking lot can become an outdoor venue for all kinds of creative undertakings.
Perhaps you could host a monthly craft market like Green Qween in Los Angeles does, a lucha libre extravaganza presented by Luchador, or a classic car show coordinated by Hazy. Get innovative, and try to think of cannabis not as the experience but the enhancer to the experience.
If you’re going to host an event, make it memorable. Don’t simply round up a food truck, a DJ, and a few ten-by-ten pop-up tents handing out branded lanyards. That may increase brand awareness for consumers who stroll by, but it doesn’t entice anyone to leave their home or build a sense of community around the store. Instead, arrange for entertainment or activities that will encourage people to attend to be part of the experience, and then entice them into the store to select products to enhance their enjoyment.
A few more tips: Consider using Eventbrite to promote the happening. The website doesn’t discriminate against cannabis or charge for free events, and it’s a great way to reach new local consumers. Prepare for crowds, and make sure you have a plan to process a lot of orders quickly.
Also look for other community events to participate in or sponsor (within regulatory guidelines, of course). Actively participating in community initiatives is a very effective way to win hearts and minds.
Anna Mendoza is the head of marketing at TRP, a retail license holder and operator with stores in seven states. Her previous career in real estate convinced her being a friendly neighbor can bring rich rewards. “It really comes down to understanding what makes a particular community tick, understanding their needs, and trying to make a difference,” she said.
She related a positive experience TRP had in supporting a Boys and Girls Club initiative that fed 500 families in Oxnard, California, during the coronavirus pandemic. The nonprofit was “really apprehensive about even talking to a cannabis company, so I got on the phone with them, explained what our goals and objectives were, and said we understood there was a need we could fill.”
She believes community engagement disarms the Reefer Madness stigma and can even lay the marketing groundwork pre-opening. “If you do it right during the entitlement part, people know your store is coming because you’ve had community meetings and you’ve been talking about the project for years,” said Mendoza. “So when it finally opens, everybody in the community knows about it and hopefully knows your team, too.”
Cannabis use among seniors has increased exponentially over the past two decades, with an estimated 6 percent of U.S. adults aged sixty-five or older having used cannabis in the past year (compared to just 0.5 percent in 2002). One trend worth noting: stores actively bussing senior citizens to their location to learn about and purchase products.
The Laguna Woods Village retirement community in Orange County, California, takes residents on a monthly field trip to the Farmacy dispensary in Santa Ana. Upon arrival, the guests receive a complimentary lunch and education about products as well as branded presentations and discounts for product purchases.
Senior customers arguably are less fickle than experimental, price-driven younger consumers, and proactively getting them into a store to learn about the myriad health benefits of the plant might earn stable, ongoing business from a desirable but hard-to-reach demographic.
“Art has been integrally connected with cannabis throughout history,” said Lauren Fontein, founder of The Artist Tree. “Whether it’s paintings or a museum or performances by musicians, there’s a long trend of people using cannabis while enjoying and producing art.”
The Artist Tree was granted one of the coveted consumption-lounge licenses in West Hollywood, California, because it was designed with art, culture, and creativity in mind. The store itself doubles as a gallery, showcasing and selling the work of local artists without taking a hanging fee.
“It’s actually really hard for artists to find gallery space,” said Fontein. “There are many, many more artists than there are galleries, so a lot of up-and-coming artists don’t actually have a good pathway to making their art visible to the public.”
The art not only gives the space more character but also acts as a draw for people who want to check out the work, thus supporting the dispensary’s goal of selling more products. Once they’re in the store, consumers often realize their stash is running low. Cannacurious visitors, set at ease by the gallery-like environment and low-pressure budtenders, sometimes decide to take the plunge and experiment with a product that catches their eye.
“We definitely lean into the art as an important aspect of our business,” Fontein said. “The artists themselves help promote [the store] because they want to share it with friends and family, and that drives people into the retail space.”
The Artist Tree keeps things fresh by rotating in new work every three months. In June, the dispensary paid tribute to West Hollywood’s thriving LGBTQ+ community by hosting queer artists’ work.
Apple’s in-store classes and events are an innovative—and integral—part of its retail strategy. Since the first Apple Store opened in 2001, free classes have helped customers learn how to use their devices and apps. The company also implemented a range of events, from one-on-one coaching sessions to specialized summer camps that help children develop early coding, video-editing, and other digital skills.
Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president of retail, told attendees at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit the goal of the brand’s stores today is to enrich customers’ lives—not just sell them things and repair their devices.
“We are reinventing the role our stores and employees play in the community,” Ahrendts told her audience. “We want to be more like a town square, where the best of Apple comes together and everyone is welcome.”
Apple’s educational programs not only set the company apart from other retailers but also proved a boon for driving customers to its stores. By continuing to offer learning experiences that are both fun and informative, Apple is improving the customer experience with the products themselves and fostering greater loyalty over time.
Tesla, too, heavily invests in education. The brand’s dealerships are designed to be more than just showrooms for cars. The spaces are interactive, incorporating features like touch screens for designing custom cars and a virtual-reality experience that allows customers to “test drive” the vehicles. The dealerships also offer workshops and events and are staffed with experts who can answer questions and provide demos.
The cannabis industry has invested in education from the beginning, and that legacy continues to be important in new and mature markets alike. New York City’s Standard Dose, for example, designed a yoga studio and meditation space into its chic Broadway location. The store offered lunchtime and after-work sessions that allowed harried city dwellers respite from their stressful daily lives.
Dispensaries also could follow Tesla’s example and make flower displays interactive, use wall space to explain effects in plain language, or label products with terpene info and explainers. New customers will feel more comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings if stores make an effort to explain things clearly, and they may reward retailers who take the approach with repeat business.
Love them or hate them, celebrities draw crowds. Personal appearances by popular musicians, actors, and others nearly guarantee consumers will line up to brush shoulders with fame.
Cannabis has a spotty history with celebrities, and the jury is still out on whether they are genuinely beneficial to brands. That said, there’s plenty of precedent for big names being a big draw for retailers.
Every time a Cookies opens, founder Berner rolls through and is welcomed with a snaking line of hypebeasts eager to get a selfie and pick up a sack of Gary Payton or London Pound Cake. “Berner has such a huge platform. When he speaks, it moves the needle,” said Anna Mendoza of TRP, a Cookies licensee. “[When he makes an appearance], you see people who are just enamored with the brand and have been following him since the early days.”
Stores can be proactive by inviting celebrities to come through, shop on the house, and stay for a few photos. Alternatively, they can put in a fat order of Tyson 2.0 or Ric Flair Drip and get the champs to make an appearance, gratis.
This final idea may not be particularly cost-effective but could result in earned media exposure or become a viable business model in the future: Launch a store in the metaverse.
Adidas and online game Fortnite came together in 2019 to create an in-game virtual Adidas store players could visit to purchase exclusive digital items for their avatars, including outfits and accessories. The virtual store provided an early example of brands exploring the possibilities of the metaverse to engage with younger audiences in innovative ways. Adult gamers compose a highly engaged and active user base.
Cannabis brand Saucy launched a metaverse store last year and managed to get the effort covered in the Wall Street Journal. While the brand couldn’t actually sell any product—and almost certainly lost money on the promotion—the store created significant buzz.