The fact that an ugly exterior is bad for business might seem completely obvious, but the science behind creating a successful storefront and effective signage is far more complex than superficial beauty — and could be one of the most crucial pieces of a profitable retail enterprise.
The simple truth is that excellent customer service, the best selection of product, a swanky interior and industry-leading prices aren’t worth much if customers aren’t compelled to come into the shop. Research has shown that a bad exterior can cut a customer base by up to 60%.
“When you think about how limited cannabis shops are, where they can’t have radio or television ads, then how can you advertise?” architect Jim Goodspeed says. “The last line of defense for advertising is your building.”
Signify the Brand
On Dexter Avenue in Seattle, thousands of local residents and commuters know exactly where their nearest cannabis retailer is located. They didn’t need to read about it in the Seattle Times, a Yelp review or on the latest dispensary locator app; instead, a vibrant neon sign reading “The Pot Shop” alerts everybody on the street about the nature of the business on the corner of Dexter and Hayes Street. It’s an excellent example of using the brand and the signage to entice customers.
A study by the Economics Center at the University of Cincinnati showed that 60% of businesses that increased the visibility of their stores through exterior design and signage saw a 10% increase in sales. A similar study commissioned by FedEx Office in conjunction with Ketchum Global Research and Analytics found that 80% of consumers said they would enter a store based on its signage, 75% of consumers told others about a business due to its exterior design and 60% of consumers were deterred from a store due to the absence (or perceived absence) of a sign.
These numbers make perfect sense, says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow.
“You’re more likely to talk to another human being that looks presentable,” she says, “so it’s kind of a universal that we get cues about businesses in the same way we get cues about people — based on their appearance.”
Yarrow also says consumers have been retrained by technology to make snap decisions based on appearances.
“Which means we rely on visual cues more than ever,” Yarrow says. “Consumers look at signage and upkeep as cues as to what to expect when they go in there.”
According to the Sign Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the science of signs, there are four major factors that contribute to visibility: color, luminance, contrast and size. Yellow and white have the highest luminance and the highest contrast when used with black letters, but the Sign Research Foundation reports 80% of consumers recognize a brand by its color, so it makes sense for signage to be taken into consideration as part of the holistic brand.
Retail shops can be separated into two categories: those that attract customers driving by on the road and those that attract customers walking past on the sidewalk. These distinctions should influence the type of signage each retailer uses.
According to the Sign Research Foundation, letters should be one inch in height for every 40 feet of perceived visibility, meaning a sign reading “Cannabis” in one-foot letters would be legible from roughly 480 feet away.
In dense inner-city neighborhoods, where foot traffic is already high, a sandwich board sign might work perfectly. However, in what Goodspeed calls “auto-oriented” areas, where potential customers zoom past shops at 40 mph and faster, business owners need to take a different approach, with signage that clearly depicts what their shop sells and can be identified from longer distances.
Strawberry Fields in Pueblo, Colorado, is a prime example of an auto-oriented shop. Owners Mike and Rich Kwesell knew the majority of their potential customers would be passing by at high speeds on Interstate 25. To capitalize on Colorado’s built-in tourism industry, which draws more than 30 million visitors annually — many of whom are younger thrill seekers who visit for the skiing and mountain climbing — the owners also wanted to make sure the building conveyed its fun atmosphere to passersby. They turned to Doug Fullen, a project manager at Way Architects, to build the location from the ground up.
“The site they selected is along the interstate and in one of the first towns that visitors would come across from southern plain states like Oklahoma and Texas,” Fullen says. “So, like any other retail business that’s gearing itself toward visitors and people who are not from the area, it needed to create a visual presence from the road.”
Using just red and white, the building grabs commuters’ attention with a vibrant back-lit strawberry and an adjacent sign reading “Recreational/Adult-Use MJ.”
Another example of a cannabis retailer in an auto-oriented location is Cannabis City, Seattle’s first recreational cannabis retailer and one of Goodspeed’s latest projects. He was tasked with remodeling Cannabis City’s storefront to draw in more foot traffic while remaining in compliance with strict local and state laws.
“We needed the façade to call out enough attention to itself without having to rely on a larger sign,” Goodspeed says.
Cannabis City is located on a busy four-lane street in Seattle’s industrial SODO district, leaving Goodspeed with little room for landscaping or sweeping murals, so he opted for a more psychedelic approach. The building’s street-facing exterior was outfitted with color-changing reflective panels that shift from dark blue to light yellow as vehicles drive by.
“We focused it just in the area by the door and up high, since it’s a two-story building,” Goodspeed says. “We also contrasted it with a very subdued, charcoal-gray metal. It has elements of psychedelics, but it’s still restrained.”
With the recreational cannabis industry still in its infancy, retailers across North America are trying to answer the same question: What’s the best way to alert potential customers about where they can buy marijuana?
While the more recognizable symbols for the industry, such as green crosses and cannabis leaves, absolutely denote the nature of a business, they are tied to its gray-market past and may also deter customers who believe they need a medical card to enter. And with some states, like Massachusetts, considering outlandishly restrictive rules against cannabis imagery outside retail stores, entrepreneurs face an increasingly complex challenge.
“We haven’t seen an icon or indicator to emerge, besides the green cross, that easily distinguishes a store as a marijuana retailer,” says Rachel Chichester, a senior designer at Urban Chalet. “But we don’t necessarily think it needs to be part of dispensaries’ exterior design. A well-designed exterior will draw interest to the store, which may not have been the case if there was a green cross outside. I think the green cross is a great symbol, but it can be intimidating to first-time customers.”
Urban Chalet designed The Apothecarium in San Francisco, an example of a cannabis retailer in an area with heavy foot traffic. With the help of architect Vincent Gonzaga, the firm embellished the details of the Victorian building by enhancing its natural trim work, adding a decorative and well-lit awning, and blending the company’s color scheme with the feel of the neighborhood.
“You want the exterior design to relate to the brand and appeal to a wide range of consumers,” Chichester says. “To do that it should reflect its location.”
Common options for a building exterior include detail trim work, window design, exterior lighting for the building and signage, using unique hardware for common items such as doors, plants and landscaping, and specialty finishes that can set the tone for a specific brand.
“It’s important to be flexible and mix the design to fit the location and fit well with your brand,” Chichester says. “It’s good to stand out, but just don’t stand out in a negative way.”
Rules and Regulations
While the resources dedicated to exterior design varies from store to store, regulations also vary equally from location to location. Some states, municipalities or even individual neighborhoods have strict rules for exterior design, prohibiting window displays, large signs and suggestive artwork — on top of variables such as landlord preferences and zoning regulations. For example, requirements for historic districts may prohibit altering a building’s façade.
“Even within a big city, the design aesthetic can change between different neighborhoods,” Chichester says. “Customers respond well to businesses that speak to their community’s point of view and respect the characteristics of their neighborhood and location.”
But for every regulation, there’s somebody looking for a loophole — and hiring lawyers to help them do it. Washington, for example, limits retailers’ signs to a maximum of 1,600 square inches.
Many cannabis retailers simply purchase nearby billboards as stand-alone advertisements in lieu of signage. Uncle Ike’s in Seattle utilizes the adjacent building, which features a massive, three-story “Uncle Ike’s” mural on the building’s street-facing side. Some retailers have hired sign spinners and used other resourceful means to alert consumers.
“It’s really important to know the regulations from the start and then use them as a launching point to develop a creative solution where you are limited,” Chichester says. “Sometimes that’s artwork and sometimes it’s a really special material that is going to draw people’s attention to the space and make them interested.”