That’s Grow Biz

While cannabis users rejoiced when legalization came into effect, designers of retail cannabis spaces aren’t exactly feeling the high.

Ontario doesn’t exactly have a great history when it comes to the legalization of things previously illegal. The early iterations of LCBO stores 70 years ago were known for resembling banks, with clerks stationed behind wire grills and orders made on slips of paper. The scene now is entirely different, at least for the liquor industry. But as you heard, cannabis is now legal (sort of), so the question many are asking is whether that same enlightenment will be afforded to the cannabis retail industry, now that the province is overseeing everything.

A year into legalization it appears the short answer is: not really. “There are plenty of restrictions on the visibility and access to product that drives store planning and product interaction in the overall design of stores. You are not allowed to promote marketing or lifestyle messages, product display has to be under lock and key, and store windows must be concealed from pedestrian view,” says Mardi Najafi, director of retail design at Toronto-based Figure3. This concealment means vinyl on the windows, or screens blocking the view, in addition to a security guard at the front door checking IDs and a “reception” desk just inside the door. And that’s before you even get to the product.

“Everybody says the same thing: we want to have a learning centre, we want to be environmentally friendly, but no one knows how to merchandise because the rules and regulations are so stringent right now, you can’t brand, you can’t have clothing, you can’t promote your brand,” says John Simmen, a principal at Toronto-based SevenPoint Interiors. “This is probably the most difficult retail problem to solve that we’ve had, and we’ve been doing this for over 40 years.”

SevenPoint Interiors was founded in 2016 as a division of Visual Elements, a retail design and manufacturing company with clients that include Coach and Louis Vuitton. In the cannabis space, half of SevenPoint’s business is working directly with cannabis retailers, the other half is bringing on a design firm (usually that SevenPoint hires) to execute the plan. “Normally our experience is clients have a design and construction team, and then designs get thrown at us and we make it work,” says SevenPoint principal Robert Turk. “In the cannabis space, they don’t, and they are coming to us to provide a turnkey solution for them. 90 per cent [of cannabis retails] don’t know what they’re doing.”

How could they, in a retail landscape so opaque? And if restrictions seem Draconian right now, there is room for it to get worse, cautions Najafi. “We could potentially see the same restrictions that packaging has—no branding, neutral and educational messages only, warning labels—applied to the store experience itself if more conservative measures come into play.”

For now, because the rules change so quickly, the key thing is design flexibility. “If tomorrow we can have edibles, how are we going to display them; if tomorrow we can have clothing with our logos on it, how will we display it? How can we remain flexible in our space, but also, right now, have a big open space with generic packaging and make it look good?” says Simmen, echoing retailers’ primary questions. The solution is to create a space that is comfortable and enjoyable to be in, with warm, approachable, neutral tones and comfortable, natural elements such as wood, bio-walls, and earth tones like bronzes and soft greens.

For now, it’s about trying to appeal to every consumer slice: those who are already experts and want to get in and get out, as well as those who want to hang out and be educated, which is why some retailers are even integrating lounging elements. The design dictates may be imprecise, but there is a consensus on what it is not supposed to look like: specifically the bright whites of a Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacy or Apple store.

“As the mad rush settles down, eventually retailers will have to differentiate themselves, and focus on a key customer segment to reflect their core values and what they are aiming to represent through branding, product focus, education, and the overall store and website design,” says Najafi. Figure3 found success with Surterra in Florida, where the design impressed the local landlords so much that “the lease agreements were moved from low-traffic strip malls to main street shopping districts,” says Najafi, and they’ve since rolled out additional stores replicating elements of their designs.

“Design will be immensely important in the future as the market becomes more competitive. Experience will be key, not just pure consumerism, but exploration, education, and creating a social connection based on brand values will play a major role in the design of stores,” says Najafi. “Strategy and design will begin to impact the legal acceptance of cannabis by landlords and individual municipalities that currently are not open to allowing stores based on its ‘seedy’ reputation. We are hoping that informed design can educate legislators and push the boundaries of the current extreme requirements for cannabis stores.”