Traditional retail has always been about evolution. From the early days of the general store, to the dominance of Sears, to today’s dizzying variety of retailers like warehouse clubs, mall stores, super centers and specialty shops, the business of selling is constantly changing and evolving. Legal marijuana may be the latest incarnation of retail, but it follows the same rules of all other forms of physical retail: Customer experience is everything.
With that in mind, the owners of the Evergreen Market marijuana stores knew from the onset that if they were going to enter the retail cannabis fray, they were going to do something special.
Jeff Anderson, Arne Nelson and Eric Gaston met years ago in a Y-Princess group. All three had young daughters in the program and discovered they had similar interests despite very different professional backgrounds. Gaston had been practicing law, but was bored with the profession; Nelson was an experienced tech executive with a background in software and startups; and Anderson had 20-plus years in retail, e-commerce and entrepreneurship.
When Gaston mentioned during a casual conversation that he was contemplating opening a retail store in Washington’s soon-to-emerge legal marijuana space, Nelson and Anderson were all ears. They agreed that if they did something, retail was the obvious choice because the businesses could be located close to their families in the Seattle suburbs. After nearly a year of discussion and due diligence, they took the plunge, despite not having any background in cannabis.
The state licensing process, described by many as a nightmare, was relatively straightforward for the trio. Gaston, with his legal background, actually praised the state’s system.
“It was a true lottery,” he says. “All applicants had an equal chance to win a license. And while it was arduous and slow at times, the process was fair, and contributed to a stable and controlled rollout that has been a success overall.”
After both Gaston and Nelson won licenses, the next step was finding suitable location. Retail-suitable space was not easy to come by. With local moratoriums, reluctant landlords and zoning issues, the search was slow and painful. Eventually they landed a lease at a site south of Seattle on busy Rainier Avenue in Renton (also home to Marijuana Venture). With a space secured, Nelson led the build-out and design efforts. Early consultation with an architect contributed to a look that became the Evergreen mark. Two more individually-owned locations followed in Auburn and South Renton, respectively, and featured the same core design elements.
“The look that made the first store unique is repeated in the other two locations and we’ve now got something recognizable,” Nelson says.
Architectural Digest recently recognized the Auburn Evergreen Market as the second-best designed retail cannabis store in the entire country — a major endorsement in a business that now counts several thousand locations spread across half a dozen states.
The three businessmen, who operate their stores independently, pool their ideas to create a consistent design shared by each location. They consider themselves the “Evergreen Team.”
Not content with simply owning a pretty store and garnering awards, the Evergreen team focuses on the experience of their “guests.” Early trips to Colorado solidified the belief that most cannabis stores still possessed a dark, seedy feel that carried over from the days of prohibition.
“We knew we could do better,” Gaston says, “and we set out to create an environment that put customers at ease, while also mimicking the upscale feel of a fine wine shop.”
After lots of brainstorming sessions that discussed each partner’s vision of the customer experience, they reached a general consensus that focusing on the way highly-regarded, established retailers like Nordstrom, REI and Starbucks treated their customers was the obvious path to take.
“In other words,” Gaston says, “there’s nothing magic about it. You just take great care of your customer, offer them the best products available and they, in turn, reward you with loyalty and repeat visits.”
The Evergreen team has made sourcing the highest quality cannabis a priority by pulling in the strain knowledge and expertise of Danny Khuu, an industry legend and seasoned buyer. Khuu’s overriding objective is to always source superior product across every price point.
“The Evergreen Markets will not compromise when it comes to what they stock, and I’m constantly striving to find the best products for the Evergreen customer no matter what their budget or particular taste calls for,” Khuu says.
With the third Evergreen Market location recently opened by Anderson in South Renton, the Evergreen team has extended their brand and created another popular destination for consumers. The staff is quick to greet guests as they enter the store through the rustic-looking, Adirondack-style twisted willow door that is a hallmark of all three locations.
Each location features reclaimed barn wood, a THC molecule imprinted into the sales floor and other stylistic elements that connect each store within the brand.
ID processing is done via an electronic scanner, and employees are trained to help, but not hover. With sales at the Auburn Evergreen location closing in on $1 million a month, the Evergreen team projects combined sales from the three locations will be in the neighborhood of $2.25 million a month by the fall of 2017.
Educate, Celebrate, Elevate
While all three retail locations share a similar design, they also demonstrate consistency with their “Educate, Celebrate, Elevate” theme. Gaston explains that they wanted to come up with core values that could be articulated easily, followed from one location to another and used as the Evergreen mantra. Those three simple words sum up their collective thinking on retail.
“Educating our customers on the products, the people who manufacture them and the industry in general is what makes us different,” Gaston says. “In fact, we recently created the job of ‘educator’ in order to have an employee on the floor at all times who is there to help customers who might have a question or need extra time.”
The store educator can easily be identified by a white lanyard.
“Celebrate is equally important to us,” Gaston says. “For too long, marijuana and the people who enjoy it have been marginalized. We wanted to shatter this stigma, eliminate the shame and embrace the cannabis community.”
Finally, Elevate sums up their overall philosophy.
“Elevate is a core value that permeates everything we do,” Gaston says. “We felt right from the beginning that a rising tide lifts all boats, and we see retailers as the front line of our industry. We are the face the public sees, and we take that very seriously. By running a professional and compliant store, we are demonstrating to the public that the cannabis industry can be a valuable partner in a community that has diverse retail offerings.”
Opening new horizons
While the future of adult-use legal marijuana looks rosy, the question of expansion and where to invest is universal among all cannabis capitalists. The Evergreen team understands this and has spent many hours discussing future growth plans.
“We’re actively working on our next moves,” Gaston says. “We feel that the Evergreen Market has a unique approach to retail cannabis, and further, that a successful store is only as good as its processes and procedures. We’ve worked hard to document everything we do from cash management, to security, to purchasing and merchandizing, to hiring and training staff. This has allowed us to create a model that is repeatable. We’re now in a position that enables us to talk to other would-be retail store owners about how we can assist them as they contemplate entering the business.”
The Evergreen team believes strongly in “owning” the experience: They’ve created an award-winning in-store environment that combines all the elements that make for an unforgettable shopping experience. But more importantly, it’s also a store the owners themselves would feel comfortable shopping in.