With the legalization of cannabis spreading across North America, the appeal to build well-designed retail outlets has become more of a priority as dispensaries aim to create a more pleasant on-site exploration and purchasing experience for the customer.
Thirty states have now legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use. In 2015, there were an estimated 1,000 cannabis retailers open for business — now there are 6,000 and counting. With competition only becoming greater, business owners must now consider the aesthetic design of the facility to ensure the overall customer experience is satisfying, with an environment the customers want to return to time and time again. Even if a dispensary offers the best strains of marijuana, repeat business may lag if the design, packaging and branding elements aren’t appealing.
Depending upon state regulations, each dispensary can adopt different design aspects. In Illinois, for example, where only medical cannabis is legal, design needs and trends can drastically differ from those in Washington, where recreational use has been legal for almost six years.
Regulation Vs. Design
In Illinois, where there are now 54 cannabis dispensaries, the design process for the architect runs from conception through completion. To ensure compliance with all state specifications, which are dictated by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, constant communication is required between the dispensary, state officials, architect and builder. The process usually requires a steep learning curve for the architect, who is working with one of the most stringent sets of design guidelines possible, as regulated by the state.
However, whenever possible, government regulations should not hinder the design process for the architect — in fact, quite the opposite. A forward-thinking architecture firm can think of the delicate process as “design leads, and construction follows.” For example, opening a dispensary in Illinois takes a considerable investment — well over $300,000 between application fees and the cost of annual license renewal — even before any build-out costs are considered. With such high expenditures at stake, it is paramount to the dispensary owner that aesthetically pleasing surroundings prevail. Customers do not care about the design regulations but will ultimately remember the design qualities and how the space made them feel.
In Illinois, specifically, most cannabis dispensaries currently reflect a solemn health care setting, instead of today’s relevant cannabis culture. However, for Dispensary 33, the first dispensary in Chicago, opened in December 2015, the company wanted to move away from a medical space and feel.
“Since so many of our customers are in serious pain, they don’t want to be in just another sterile environment,” Dispensary 33 owner Paul Lee says. “We wanted our space to be inviting and a place for them to escape the multiple hospital visits they have already gone through.”
Investing in time, research and out-of-the-box creativity will help produce a design that is compliant in your state.
Dispensary 33, for example, was determined to exceed all design components, while remaining compliant with state regulations. Here are a few regulations that Illinois has placed on dispensaries that could deter the design process:
– If a product’s seal has been broken, it must be destroyed or immediately sold.
“Our customers want to see the product before they buy it, so our architecture firm, Perimeter Architects, designed a vacuumed-sealed clear cannabis canister that we provide to the cultivation centers,” Lee says. “Once filled, the grower seals the canister and sends it back to us. This allows us to comply with the regulation, while letting our customers see what they are purchasing and greatly reduces our destruction costs.”
The use of these canisters allows Dispensary 33 to comply with state regulations while remaining the only dispensary in the state to grant patients full visual access to all of its products. At the same time, the canisters make a powerful statement about the design-focused aesthetic of the entire dispensary.
– Also, products can only be handled in a back-inventory room. In any cannabis retail outlet, whether it’s medical or recreational, consumers strongly prefer to see the strains that are available, which can change daily.
“At Dispensary 33, we like to call it an aquarium, where our staff can service the linear display case from a locked room,” Lee says. “If you were to look at the case, you couldn’t tell there was a staff-accessible hallway behind it. This allows the cannabis canisters to be seen by our patients, but compliant with the regulation that all product be handled in a back room.”
The businesses pick what to sell, but the designers and architects need to figure out how to display the product. Customers benefit from being able to see the product before making a purchase and, with cannabis canisters and the “aquarium,” Dispensary 33 patrons can do just that. If the design process took a back seat to regulations, the outcome would have been completely different.
Future of Design: Appeal to Both
Many dispensaries in Colorado and on the West Coast have paved the way for innovative design. In the recreational environment specifically, cannabis retail design is still fairly new, and the possibility of merging both recreational and medical, where legal, can be a daunting task for architects, designers and builders.
In states where cannabis is legal for both medical and recreational use, it’s a challenge to provide a space that caters to both types of customers. When there to receive cannabis for medical concerns, some patients might be uncomfortable walking past young adults excited about trying a new strain. Those customers who are there to explore in a recreational sense could be put off having to walk through a “hospital-like” environment.
Dispensary halls, acting as malls with multiple floors — medical on one floor, recreational on another — are future possibilities for cannabis retail design trends.
Dispensary owners should strive for a well-designed facility that is going to appeal to and respect the needs of all their customers. Designers and architects will want to have in-depth discussions with the owners to help reveal how they want their dispensaries to look and feel. Because the look of a dispensary is an asset to use for marketing, on social media and in publicity efforts, the design needs to be able to showcase your company clearly and visibly. Retail strategists suggest it takes a customer less than 10 seconds to decide whether they like a store and won’t return if they don’t feel a connection with the environment. In a space where hundreds of thousands of dollars are being invested, making sure the design exceeds expectations is the best investment of all.
Branyo Dvorak is a principal of Perimeter Architects & Construction, located in Chicago. His passion for the architectural profession surfaced during his studies at the University of Illinois of Chicago. In the past 20 years, he has contributed to architectural firms in Chicago and San Diego. At Perimeter, he leads the office in business operations. Perimeter designed Chicago’s first cannabis retailer, Dispensary 33, which opened in December 2015.