What Portland retailers are doing to keep afloat
With no cap on the number of stores allowed and the prospect of a brand new, wide-open, billion-dollar industry dancing before the eyes of investors and entrepreneurs everywhere, the city of Portland, Oregon has seen an explosion in the number of cannabis retail shops and dispensaries competing for customer dollars.
As of early October, there were 149 active cannabis retail shops in the city, or a little more than one per square mile, though most are concentrated in commercial districts. Even in an industry as fast-growing and steeped in potential as cannabis, stores must actively work to stand out from the crowd if they are hoping to attract new and returning customers.
Marijuana Venture checked in with a handful of Portland’s cannabis retailers to find out what they were doing to try and stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Tetra represents the new wave of marijuana retail shops in Portland, one that has never operated under the jurisdiction of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. Tetra, unlike so many of its competitors in Portland, has served the fully legal, adult-use market since first opening its doors for business in July 2017 – a factor that has both upsides and downsides, general manager Kyler Woods says.
Many of Portland’s long-standing cannabis retailers have built loyal customer bases over the years, Woods says.
Portland has been one of the most saturated cannabis markets in the country for years, with many dispensaries that operated in the gray area days before licensing and the vast majority of stores set up to serve primarily medical patients – or recreational consumers with a medical card.
“We’ve addressed the competitiveness just by putting a lot of thought into every aspect of our dispensary before we actually opened our doors,” Woods says. “That’s reflected in the layout and the design of the store itself.”
The shop is located on the corner of Belmont and Peacock Lane in Southeast Portland, “a hip, up-and-coming neighborhood,” Woods calls it.
Although there’s still a stigma associated with cannabis users and pot shops in general, Tetra has been able to capture a mainstream audience much more effectively than the majority of its older counterparts.
“We designed Tetra to make it feel more like a business, instead of going into a basement to buy some weed, which is how a lot of shops still feel,” Woods says.
This is where Tetra’s ground-up approach has been a major benefit, more so from a regulatory perspective than just aesthetics.
The shop has an inclusive atmosphere: upscale without being elitist; highly educated staff members pride themselves on customer service, rather than making uninitiated shoppers feel overwhelmed; a wide selection of products, ranging from the medicinal to the purely recreational, serving consumers from the budget-conscious to the connoisseurs; a layout designed to feel familiar for long-time consumers, yet welcoming to cannabis newbies.
“Our focus in putting the shop together was to provide a pleasant experience for people from all walks of life,” Woods says. “We’ve made it a very comfortable atmosphere without being ‘bougie’ about it. We didn’t want to get too upscale where it turns some people off.”
Serra and Electric Lettuce
Despite being owned by the same parent company, SERRA and Electric Lettuce have opposing strategies in their design, marketing and demographic base. The elegant, upscale SERRA is designed to look like a luxury retailer or jewelry store, with modern, open lines and brass fixtures. Electric Lettuce, at the other end of the spectrum, aims for a looser, more fun image built entirely around the marijuana nostalgia of the late 1960s and early ’70s.
The two different franchises are not only owned by the same parent company, but were designed by the same firm, Portland-based OMFGCO.
According to OMFGCO co-founder and creative director Jeremy Pelley, the designs grew out of the firm’s attempts to find a niche and then “understand the brand.”
“We’re looking for what’s not there in the market,” Pelley says. “We’re looking for gaps.”
When work began on the Serra design, what they saw missing from the cannabis landscape was a luxury retailer, one that would be bright and open and not alienate new cannabis users, many of whom have negative connotations surrounding the plant.
At Serra, the space is modern and sophisticated. With a location in Portland’s downtown business and shopping district, the designers used words like “elegant” and “beautifully restrained” as guidance and intentionally stayed away from stereotypical pot imagery. There are no pot leaves or green crosses and the materials used are ones found in greenhouses like glass, brass, wood and stone. Even the name “Serra,” the Italian word for greenhouse, was chosen to evoke sophistication.
“We just wanted to make a beautiful retail space,” says Cambria Benson Noecker, Brand Development Director for Groundworks Industries, the parent company of Serra and Electric Lettuce.
Benson Noecker says the idea was to get away from the “waiting room” style dispensary offices that were leftovers from the pre-adult use, medical marijuana days. No one mans the counter so there is no pressure, but employees stay near to answer questions and offer suggestions.
Benson Noecker says another choice Serra made was to associate each strain with a feeling, designated by a symbol. For example, a circle for “happiness,” a square for “relaxation” and a diamond for “creativity.” The idea was to create an easy entry point for new customers who are not steeped in pot culture.
The design has paid off for the shop, according to Benson Noecker, as it has cultivated a more adult/mature customer demographic, with walk-in customers sometimes surprised to find it’s a marijuana store or specifically telling employees how comfortable the space feels.
At Electric Lettuce, the creative teams went in exactly the opposite direction, celebrating the nostalgia and fun of marijuana culture and aiming directly for the stoner dollar.
“It’s a departure from Serra,” Benson Noecker says with a laugh. “It’s a celebration of the birth of marijuana counterculture in America.”
According to Pelley, the designers focused on the period of 1965-1971 as a time when the “normals” were starting to experiment with pot and the beginnings of the culture were taking shape.
Unlike Serra, Electric Lettuce is more of a neighborhood shop with a big, colorful abstract mural on the side and is decorated with paraphernalia and memorabilia from the era, which Pelley describes as the “folk history of illegal pot smoking.” Even the name was chosen from a list of early slang terms for cannabis.
“We just tried to have a lot of fun with it,” Pelley says. “We gave ourselves a really strong point of view.”
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Benson Noecker says, calling it a “fun, relaxed vibe.”
The authentic memorabilia – purchased off Ebay – and an easygoing vibe creates a fun space for cannabis users, particularly Baby Boomers, looking to re-live some of the tie-dye glory days or those trying to get a sense of what it was like to grow up in the era.
The designers even sought out classic typefaces from the era to use on all the signage in the store, which, like Serra, classifies each strain by a feeling, though at Electric Lettuce those feelings are “groovy,” “cosmic” and “mellow” to go with the vibe.
Pelley says Electric Lettuce also made a bit of name for itself last year by creating bumper stickers that say “Elect Rick Lettuce,” now a mythical figure and something of a mascot at the shop.
Like at Serra, the design has created a definite point of view that separates it from other dispensaries and attracts a loyal demographic. Benson Noecker says some customers have even begun to bring in some of their old memorabilia from the era to donate to the collection and vibe.
“People absolutely love that store,” she says.
Not all shops use store design as a way to stand out and attract clientele. At Canna Daddy’s, owner Brad Zusman focuses on selection and budtender education as a way to stand out.
“We are more about brands within brands,” Zusman says, adding that many dispensaries or retail shops in the city operate “deli-style,” while his store does the opposite. “We are all pre-packaged.”
Zusman says the packaging allows each farm and strain to brand itself. But the key is educating the employees to make sure they have to best information to give the consumer. In a “completely saturated market” like Portland, Zusman believes that his knowledgeable staff and history in the medical market give his shop the edge it needs to stay recognized and competitive, even as his single shop competes with larger chains that have up to 15 locations around the city.
Zusman says Canna Daddy’s also embraces it role as a neighborhood shop, hosting promotional specials that give back to the community, like offering a $1 joint if customers bring in four cans of food and a special $50 Schwag Bag special, the proceeds from which go to buying socks, hats, gloves and other supplies for Portland’s homeless community.
As the cannabis retail market continues to mature and become more like a traditional commercial sector, marijuana will no longer just sell itself and as more cultivator and producers come on line, simply having “the best weed” or “the best prices” may not be enough to distinguish one shop from another.
But as Portland’s wide open and competitive market shows, with a little planning ahead and the right design of marketing, shops that make an effort to distinguish themselves can stand out from the crowd and drive new customers and new business to their doors, instead of competitors.