Richard Browne remembers his first retail cannabis experience at a small shop in Aspen, soon after Colorado’s recreational market opened.
“Basically, they had some display counters with the cannabis,” he says. “It was cool because it was my first legal store, but it wasn’t really that exiting. The excitement was more in myself.”
So when Browne, a former triathlete and adventure racer who spent two successful decades in the bicycle industry as a distributor and retailer, won one of the licenses available in Ontario’s second lottery round, he knew that in order to create the kind of excitement he’d need stand out in the crowded Toronto market, his store was going to have go the opposite direction.
And his new Alchemy shop absolutely does, trading the simplicity and standard glass display cases of a typical dispensary for a customer journey through a beautiful, high design concept created by Paolo Ferrari that earned the store and designer the 2021 LOOP Design Award in the interior category.
Browne calls it “an enhanced presentation of cannabis.”
From the large “jungle plant” that welcomes guests and sumptuous earth tones of the store’s custom-molded walls to the tablets set into a one-of-a-kind white ash table, digital art hanging on the walls and industrial-style ceiling installation, the whole store is designed to highlight the “tension of the cannabis world,” from its natural plant state through the high-tech artistry and science that transforms it into a modern consumer packaged good.
“The word ‘alchemy’ is transformation from one thing to the next. Cannabis does the same thing. When you smoke it or drink it or consume it, it transforms your mind,” Browne says. “We’ve sort of brought artistry and science together, very similar to an alchemic transformation.”
For Alchemy customers, the journey begins before they even step inside.
Located in the spot where Browne used to have his bicycle shop, the storefront has been completely redesigned and looks less like cannabis shop than a modern art installation, with overlapping shapes and a strong use of negative space.
Inside the arrivals area, shoppers find a large, lush plant designed to look, according to Studio Paolo Ferrari, “as if it were a specimen in a laboratory.” Small digital viewers are embedded in the surrounding walls to act as “voyeuristic points of discovery for guests to explore.” Once in the main space, shoppers see where “soft and strong geometry coexists throughout” like the natural ash table and its flowing lines stacked against the utilitarian, almost futuristic-looking white fixtures and aluminum ceiling.
“What we wanted to do was just make people feel good when they walked into our store,” Browne says.
The store’s accessories room ratchets up the design even more, with mirrored, stainless ceilings,
carpeted floors, rippling walls made of bright, orange eco-resin and products displayed against a single back-lit shelf, like an art exhibit.
“For us, the store is somewhere between a laboratory and temple,” Ferrari says in a press release. “It is a serene environment with energetic bursts. It is also about escapism and experiencing something on a different plane.”
But the Alchemy store is designed not only to be beautiful, but also to provide shoppers — especially first-time consumers — with all the information they need to make their choice. Because of legal restrictions on displaying product, Alchemy uses custom-designed boxes, color-coded for sativa/hybrid/indica and featuring labels with a wealth of information about the product, from cannabinoid and terpene percentages to employee ratings.
There is also a “lift-and-learn table,” featuring flower in jars that allow customers to smell the product, as well as a tablet that displays information about that strain and cultivator when customers interact with the jars.
“We spent a lot of time sort of organizing everything to make it very simple for people. We put our attention to every product and design detail that we possibly could,” Browne says. “We’ve infused artistry, nature and technology to bring everyone together to give you an aesthetically pleasing flagship store and to give you as much information in the shortest period of time.”
Much of the concept behind Alchemy’s design comes from the idea of reversing the stigma of the “old-school dispensary,” like the first shop he experienced in Aspen and others he and Ferrari saw during a visit to the states to get a sense of “what was happening in the industry.”
“We went together and sort of looked at what those stores were doing, the deficiencies in them and came up with a plan to go in our own direction for our own store,” he says of the final design, noting he wants customers, especially first-time buyers, to feel good leaving and have the sense of excitement he missed in his first cannabis retail experience.
Browne says the store was specifically designed to communicate a lot of information to first-time users and to ensure they walk out with the product best suited for them. However, he also understands not every shopper needs the full journey, so customers can order ahead or skip directly to the checkout area if they know what they want.
He also wants the store to help break through stigmas as to who or what a cannabis user is, noting that more and more athletes, particularly distance athletes such as himself, are now turning to cannabis products as part of their training and recovery. While Browne, who at one time was a professional triathlete and adventure racer, says he has mostly been a recreational and social user through his life, though he would occasionally consume before training or use CBD oils post-workout and says he would certainly use cannabis today during training and recovery, if he were still competing.
Browne says he also uses what he learned during his more than two decades in the bicycle industry to help his store stand out, like vendor days to help familiarize customers with new products they may not fully understand.
“The two businesses are very similar,” he says. “At a retail level you really have to sell the higher-end accessories and (be able to) talk about them, whether they are a high-tech vape machine or a high-tech bicycle.”
Browne says he may one day reopen the bicycle shop, but these days, “my main focus is cannabis and the cannabis industry.”
With the flagship store now open, Browne says the next transformation for Alchemy will be to find partners to bring the design to the United States.
“We’re looking for a partner to take our concept and really expand in New York and Manhattan and Chicago,” Browne says. “We feel we’ve done the best job with a customer experience.”