Crash Course in Store Design for Cannabis Retailers

We had the opportunity not too long ago to speak with Patrick Wagner, Senior Editor, Marijuana Venture Magazine about store design. You might not think dispensaries are what they seem to be. Many dispensaries are more open and airy than lobbies in hotels. It’s worth a look!


Cannabis was sold by itself in the past. In today’s highly competitive market, the importance of branding, packaging, and even design of a shop was less important than it is now. With legalization looming on the West Coast, the U.S. and Canada, cannabis consumers have more options than ever.

Licensees should be prepared for increased competition as the market grows. Although terms like “decompression zones,” vistas,” speed bumps,” power walls,” and “buttbrushing” might seem absurd at first glance, there are science behind retail layouts. Even major retailers outside of the cannabis industry are aware that small errors, such as poor lighting, confusing layouts, or poor signage can lead to poor customer experience and reduce sales.

Marijuana Venture consulted experts from outside the cannabis industry to help them better equip their marijuana retailers.

View from Harvest in San Francisco’s “decompression area” – Our experts’ retail concepts are shown from the “speed bump”, display tables, to the “power wall” along the sides.


The Decompression Zone

Shoppers often make quick judgments about shops as soon as they step in the door.

Georganne Bender claims that the average customer will decide if they like a store within 10 seconds. If not faster. This is why the first five to fifteen feet of a store, also known as the “decompression area”, are crucial for attracting repeat customers.

She says, “Its sole purpose is to enable customers to slow down and stop thinking about whatever it’s about, and refocus shopping.”

Rich Kizer, Bender’s business partner, is an internationally acclaimed retail strategist, designer, and consultant who has helped thousands of retailers around the globe improve their bottom lines with their company, Kizer & Bender. The decompression zone is crucial for retail store success, but Bender describes it as a “no man’s land”, where consumers seem to miss any item within its range. It should therefore be kept open and uncluttered.

Bender states, “Don’t place anything in the decompression area that you don’t want customers to see.”

Bender states that the decompression zone doesn’t have to be limited to the front door. Every point of entry should also have its own zone.

Leslie Stern, designer and owner of Leslie M. Stern Design Ltd., says that lighting must be available for all ages.

Stern has worked in a variety of industries, including designing grocery stores in Britain and medical marijuana dispensaries in Chicago suburbs. Stern advises customers to move out of the decompression zone into the store’s vista by using brighter lighting on product signage and signs, and slightly dimming lights along the walking paths.

Retail store owners should learn from Bender and Kizer that customers “bring with you what they see in other shops.”

Dispensary 33 in Chicago has product displays that act as icebreakers and help to introduce customers to the featured brands.


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Bender states that consumers look for commonalities when things are displayed. “Is it familiar and warm or unfamiliar and cold?”

V for Vista

Bender and Kizer recommend that retailers try this simple exercise to understand the layout of their store: Stand at the edge of the decompression zone and make a “V”, with both arms at shoulder level, to identify the “vista”.

Kizer states that the vista is the most valuable part of the store. It’s almost like walking into Disneyland. The castle is there to blow your mind away.

The vista is usually where retailers place product displays or “speed bumps”, as they are commonly known in retail design. These sets the tone for the store. These displays are common in mall retail. They consist of small tables containing products from the same brand or with a similar theme. These displays act as icebreakers and help shoppers get to know a company or product. Kizer believes displays should tell a story of the brand. Also, it’s important to change out displays every week so that returning customers can see new products.

Stern advises that people not crowd around each other at the store’s decompression zone or throughout the store should leave large spaces between the displays. This will allow people to move freely and prevent “butt-brushing.”

DeAnna Radaj is the owner and consultant behind DeAnna on Design. She explains the speed bump philosophy that separates high-end retailers and budget retail stores simply as “The less stuff goes in, the higher the price point.”

Radaj asserts that the more expensive and luxurious the experience, the less product is on the floor.

Radaj said that her favorite example of this retail design is from Sex and the City. In the episode, the main characters shop at a high-end store for shoes and are drawn to one pair of $1500 shoes. They fill the entire room with their attention, as they are the only items on the floor. This is a great example for high-end retailers. However, cannabis stores are prohibited from leaving products out in the open. Isolated glass fixtures can fill this vista or the store can keep accessories and branded information in the area.

Customers check in at The Healing Center San Diego. The power wall to the right shows some of the top products.



Power Walls

Kizer says that the power wall is the second most important space within a retail store.

Resuming the “V”, position from the “V and Vista” exercise, retailers can identify the powerwall by following the line of sight down their right side and out to the fingertips.

While each designer may subscribe to a different school, Stern, Kizer and Radaj all agree that 90% customers feel a natural urge to turn right after exiting the decompression zone. This leads them to the power wall which, if used correctly, can be a crucial source of income.

Bender states that cannabis stores will have a lot wall space and counters. Some stores have a lot of pegboard hooks and it can make it difficult to shop. It’s possible to do this, but it doesn’t mean you need to have a whole wall. People need a break.

According to Bender, the best way to keep customers interested in the wall art is to break it down into vertical segments. This allows the eye to stop and look at a small portion of the products before moving on to the next segment. One common example of vertical segments is found in shoe sections in department stores: All the running shoes are kept together in a bracket. Next, all the dress shoes and then all the casual shoes. You can separate segments by using posters, a smaller group of products to be highlighted or just plain white walls. But the important thing is to have a starting point and stopping point for each segment.

Kizer states that the left power wall, located on the opposite side of a store, is the third most crucial part of the store. To guide customers around the store, the left and right power walls should be combined with the view.

Stern states that the power walls should have the brightest light facing the product or inside the display cases. The space in the rest should have a lower level of light but not too dark. Because natural light can cause lighting problems in different ways, retailers should consider dimmers.

Stern says, “Your light should reflect your traffic patterns.” Light the way to the seats, the cases and the exits — this is how you want to direct customers.

Radaj claims that she prefers hanging signs suspended from the ceiling to direct customers towards the various departments within a store. Radaj suggests that you either put lights on the products, or let the footpath travel through each section naturally.

A segmented display case from Tetra, Portland, Oregon. Vertical segments keep shoppers focused.

Radaj calls her design philosophy “eco-shui”, which is a combination of feng shui and traditional elements from her interior design degree.

According to her feng-shui practices, money and wealth are reserved for the back-right corner of a store. She advises that high-end products or sales be kept in the back-left corner. The center is where you will find the health area.

Bender states that a common mistake made by retailers is to place the cash register near the right power wall. Instead of thinking about merchandise and shopping, customers first see the store through an image that leads them to think about money.

Bender states, “It is more sensible to place the cash register at either the end of the natural shopping experience (front-left or back)”.

Kizer says that retailers should decide in what order customers want to see products, and then let the results determine where the product is placed within the store.

Kizer states, “It’s like a puzzle. But that’s how you put them together.”

Radaj states that one of the biggest mistakes when designing a shop is to create something solely based on personal preferences and not taking into account their clients. Medical patients may not like the idea of walking through a Bob Marley tribute to pick up their medication, or recreational customers might not want to go through a hospital to get party supplies. Different people may have different needs. For example, a patient with glaucoma might need signs that are easy to read.

Smart retailers know that their customers are the most important thing. From there, the rest will follow.

Radaj states, “Everything is possible once you know who you are serving.”