Every day I get multiple solicitations in my inbox from High Times, practically begging for investment cash. Each one comes with a message that combines urgency (“One Last Chance!”) and a pitch that centers on this idea that the oldest and biggest name in cannabis media cannot fail because of brand recognition and its history. Ever heard of Sears? Circuit City? Kmart? Musicland? Borders? They’re all storied brands with long histories that in many cases predate High Times by decades.
And they all failed miserably at retail in today’s rapidly changing and evolving marketplace.
Another great example of a brand that was once a huge success before fading and slipping into irrelevance is Playboy. Nothing Hugh Hefner and his team did could change the dinosaur perception that has dogged Playboy in recent years. To put it simply, the raciness of Playboy and the lifestyle it promoted in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s increasingly came across as corny and out of touch in recent decades.
I can’t help but think that High Times, like Playboy, could be a victim of its own success.
I remember reading High Times in the ’70s and ’80s. The magazine was cool, and its articles were interesting and informative. In my 20s, I enjoyed seeing pictorials of massive pot plants hidden in guerilla plots in Northern California or secret indoor grows in urban basements or garages. Yeah, it was cool. It was underground. It was “our thing.”
But things change.
Marijuana legalization is rapidly expanding, and successful commercial cannabis farming requires the kind of expertise gained from a four-year degree at a college noted for its horticulture programs — not from reading articles in High Times. Likewise, retailers in the cannabis world are increasingly focusing on basics and veering away from gimmicks and “high concept” stores. Of course, there are exceptions, and in a big tourist town like Las Vegas, high-concept stores can work. However, if the Pacific Northwest — the biggest up-and-running legal market in the world — is any indication, cannabis retail is a very competitive business. Foot traffic is driven by low prices, good locations, ample parking, friendly staff and a big selection. Profits are relatively thin (like in all forms of retail) and competition is fierce.
My point is that I don’t believe the High Times name is a guarantee of success in cannabis retail. Furthermore, I’m not sure that a pivot to retail is even a smart move. I spent 25 years in a previous life selling consumer software and media products to big retailers like Costco, Best Buy, Walmart and Amazon. In that time, I saw a lot of high-concept retailers bite the dust and lose out to companies that didn’t have a big name, but had better management. Zany Brainy, Egghead, Incredible Universe, Sony Style, Virgin, Computer City and many others lost to businesses like Best Buy, which focused on the basics and had better prices and selection.
In the end, most consumers don’t care about a name. They want a good deal. Or, in this business, high-quality bud at a cheap price.