Local ShoppingCrash Course in Store Design for Cannabis Retailers

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. Dispensaries may not be what you think they are. Most are open and airy, more like comfortable hotel lobbies. Check it out!


In the past, cannabis sold itself. Strains, packaging, branding, let alone the design of a store, didn’t matter as much as it does in today’s highly competitive environment. But with the floodgates open along the West Coast of the U.S., and Canada preparing for legalization, cannabis consumers now have more retail options than ever. 

As the market continues to grow, licensed retailers should prepare themselves for stiffer competition. Terms such as “decompression zones,” “vistas,” “speed bumps,” “power walls” and “butt-brushing” may seem nonsensical at first, but there is a science to retail layouts. Major retail companies outside the cannabis industry know that minor discrepancies — such as bad lighting, cumbersome layouts or poor signage — can not only lead to a bad consumer experience but can also reduce sales and even deter customers from returning. 

In order to better equip marijuana retailers, Marijuana Venture spoke with experts outside the cannabis industry for a crash course in retail design theory. 

A view from the “decompression zone” at Harvest in San Francisco demonstrates our experts’ retail concepts from the “speed bump” display tables to the “power walls” along the sides.

The Decompression Zone

Shoppers typically make snap judgments about stores as soon as they walk in the door. 

According to Georganne Bender, the average customer decides whether they like a retail store within 10 seconds of entering — if not quicker. This makes the first five to 15 feet inside a store — an area commonly known as the “decompression zone” — critical for attracting repeat customers. 

“Its only purpose is to allow customers to slow down, stop thinking about whatever they’re thinking about and refocus on shopping,” she says. 

Bender and her business partner, Rich Kizer, are internationally acclaimed, award-winning retail designers, strategists and consultants who have helped thousands of retail businesses across the world better their bottom lines through their firm, Kizer & Bender. Although the decompression zone is extremely important for the success of retail stores, Bender also describes this area as a “no-man’s land” where consumers seemingly miss anything placed within its range — so it should remain open and uncluttered. 

“Don’t put anything in the decompression zone that you want customers to see,” Bender says. 

The decompression zone isn’t limited to the front entrance either; Bender says every point of entry for customers should have its own decompression zone. 

“You have to have a path of lighting for when people walk in the door,” adds Leslie Stern, owner and designer of Leslie M. Stern Design Ltd. “It has to be lit for a wide range of ages, not just for someone in their 20s.” 

Stern has worked in industries ranging from designing a British grocery store chain all the way to a medical marijuana dispensary in the suburbs of Chicago. Stern says to lead customers from the decompression zone and into the vista of the store by keeping brighter lights on the product and signage and slightly dimmer lights along walking paths. 

One of the first things Bender and Kizer teach retail store owners is that consumers “bring with them what they see in other stores.”

Product displays, such as these at Dispensary 33 in Chicago, act as ice-breakers to help introduce shoppers to featured brands. 

“We, as consumers, look for commonalities in how things are displayed,” Bender says. “Is it warm and familiar or is it cold and unknown?” 

V for Vista

Bender and Kizer advise retailers to try their simple exercise to better understand their store’s layout: By standing at the end of the decompression zone and making a “V” with both arms at shoulder height, a retailer can identify the “vista” of the store.

 “The vista is the most important part of the store,” Kizer says. “It’s like when you walk into Disneyland, the castle is right there to blow you away.” 

Typically, the vista is where retailers should place product displays, or “speed bumps” as they are known in retail design, that set the tone for the store. These displays are commonplace in mall retail — little tables filled with products of the same brand or a similar theme. They act like ice-breakers for the shopper and get them acquainted with a product or company. Kizer says displays should tell a story about the brand. It’s also important to swap out displays weekly so returning customers see new items. 

To prevent people from damming up behind one another at the foot of the decompression zone and throughout the store, Stern says to keep wide margins of space around the displays, so people can move freely and avoid “butt-brushing.” 

DeAnna Radaj, the owner and design consultant behind DeAnna on Design, explains the speed bump philosophy separating high-end retailers from budget retail stores succinctly as: “The less stuff goes out, then the higher the price point.” 

“Typically, the higher the price point and more luxurious of an experience you’re trying to create, then the less product you have jammed out onto the floor,” Radaj says. 

Radaj says her favorite example of this in retail design comes from an episode of Sex and the City, in which the main characters go shopping at a high-end shoe store and become drawn to a single pair of $1,500 shoes that seemingly fill the room by being the only item on display under a spotlight. The example is obviously for high-end retailers, but since cannabis stores are often prohibited from leaving product out in the open, isolated glass fixtures can fill the vista, or a store can choose to keep non-cannabis products in the area such as accessories or branded information.

As customers check in at The Healing Center in San Diego, the power wall directly to the right displays some of the dispensary’s top products. 

Power Walls

According to Kizer, the second most important space in a retail store is the “power wall.” 

By resuming the “V” position from the “V and Vista exercise,” retailers can identify the power wall by tracing the line of sight down their right shoulder and out through the fingertips. 

Although each designer subscribes to a different school of thought, Bender, Kizer, Radaj and Stern all agree that 90% of customers have a natural impulse to turn right after leaving the decompression zone, leading them directly to the power wall, which can be a critical source of income if used properly. 

“In cannabis stores, there is going to be a lot of wall space with counters in front of them,” Bender says. “Some stores put a ton of pegboard hooks up and it looks like a sea of product that can be hard to shop. You can do that, but you don’t need an entire wall. People need a break.” 

Bender says the best way to keep shoppers interested in what sits on the walls is to break it into vertical segments, where the eyes can stop and observe a small tier of products from top to bottom and then move on to the next segment. A common example of vertical segments can be found in department store shoe sections: all the running shoes stay together in a bracket, followed by all the dress shoes, then all the casual shoes, etc. Segments can be separated by posters, a smaller cluster of products to be highlighted, framed art or just bare white wall, but the key is to have a starting and stopping point for each section. 

On the opposite side of the store, the left power wall is the third most important part of the store, Kizer says. The left and right powers walls, combined with the vista, should work in unison to guide customers around the store floor. 

Stern says the brightest lights along the power walls should be either facing product or inside the display cases. The rest of the space should be a lower light, but not dark. Retailers should also consider dimmers, because natural light can disrupt a lighting path in different ways throughout the day. 

“Your light should reflect your traffic pattern,” Stern explains. “Light the way to the cases, to the seating area — you want to direct the customer.” 

Radaj says she prefers to use hanging signs from the ceiling to direct customers to the different departments inside a store. But for something on the higher end, she says to either use lights on the products or allow the footpath to travel through each section organically.

An example of a segmented display case at Tetra in Portland, Oregon. The vertical segments help keep shoppers focused. 

Radaj describes her design philosophy as “eco-shui,” which combines feng shui with traditional elements from her degree in interior design. 

According to her feng shui practices, the back-right of a store is reserved for relationship products, while money and wealth is always reserved for the back-left corner, where she advises keeping high-end product or the point of sales. The health area of a store is in the center. 

Bender says a major mistake retailers make is placing the cash register along the right power wall. Instead of thinking about shopping and merchandise, the first impression a customer gets of the store is an image that makes them think about money. 

“It makes more sense to put the cash register at the end of the natural shopping experience: the front-left of the store or in the back of the store,” Bender says. 

Kizer adds that retailers should determine what order they want customers to see products and let the results dictate where product is placed within the store. 

“It’s a puzzle, but that’s how you put it together,” Kizer says. 

Radaj says one of the most disastrous mistakes she sees when business owners design their own shops is creating something based solely on their own preferences, rather than taking their clientele into consideration. For instance, medical patients might not enjoy walking through an homage to Bob Marley to pick up their medicine, and the same can be said for recreational customers not wanting to walk through a hospital on their way to pick up party supplies. Different demographics may also different physical requirement, such as a patient suffering from glaucoma needing signs they can read easily. 

But in the end, smart retailers make sure to lay out their shops with their consumer in mind. The rest will flow from there. 

“Everything can be put into place once you identify who it is that you want to serve,” Radaj says.

Click here to read this article on the Marijuana Venture website.


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