James Geier may not know cannabis, per se, but he knows retail spaces. As the founder and president of 555 International, a Chicago-based design firm with more than three decades of experience designing and building stores and restaurants, Geier knows what they should look like, how they should function and how to pull customers in the door.
So when the opportunity arose to design Harvest, a medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco, Geier and his team stuck with what they knew best.
“We work on it like we do any retail customer,” he says. “What are we selling and how do we sell it?”
But the entrance of major design firms like 555 into the cannabis market represents not just a shift in the industry, but also a maturation from the days when entrepreneurs simply believed that marijuana would sell itself. In today’s legal, recreational cannabis marketplace, it’s not just about being able to sell marijuana — anyone with a license can do that — but in finding ways to distinguish one shop from the next, the same way traditional retail has done it for decades.
“There is a method to the madness,” Geier says. “This industry is starting to catch up to what retail is supposed to be doing.”
Geier and 555 got involved in the retail cannabis business when a client recommended the firm to a friend looking to open a storefront in San Francisco. Marty Higgins had purchased a dispensary, but was looking to make his shop, renamed Harvest, a unique space that included a beautiful retail floor, as well as a private lounge in the back for customers and members to consume cannabis in a social setting.
The combination of retail shop and lounge was right in the wheelhouse for 555, which has designed spaces for just about every sector of the retail economy, with a focus on restaurants and retail. The firm’s clients include the pro shops for major sports brands like the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers — as well as the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks stores at the United Center in Chicago — and restaurants and breweries, including the Marriott’s new, boutique AC Hotel in Tampa and the Restaurante Sa Soca on San Antonio’s famous River Walk.
Every outlet is designed from scratch to meet the needs of the brand and its location.
“There is no 555 aesthetic,” Geier says. “Everything we do is specific to a client’s need.”
Geier adds that the development of each shop’s look, feel and character are all part of the development of the client’s image and brand, designed to answer the question, “Why am I here and why does this place look this way?”
“Every project takes on its own character,” he says.
The Harvest space was originally home to The Hemp Center, which Geier called a “pretty nasty place” people went to buy pot. Located on Geary Boulevard in the city’s Richmond District, the former storefront looked like a typical, run-down bodega, with bars on the windows and a fading red, green and yellow marquis.
Higgins wanted to create a more upscale and comfortable location for people to purchase cannabis.
“The space was rough and it was a complete gut job for us,” Geier says.
The folks at 555 took a two-tiered approach, creating a look and feel for the new shop and brand, as well as making sure the store functioned properly as a retail space, complete with proper merchandising and display for the products being sold.
Geier says the “harvest” theme was important to Higgins. To develop the brand, Geier says they went with a more natural look, featuring wood and some greenery to create a “nice, serene, comfortable environment.” The idea was that harvest is a celebrated time with any crop. However, the neighborhood is an older, mostly-residential area with businesses and homes having an early 20th century feel. The designers took their cues from combining those ideas.
“Wood really became an important part of making that a comfortable environment,” Geier says.
The large, wooden cabinetry, display cases and metal work were all designed and milled specifically for Harvest at 555’s 300,000-square-foot shop on Chicago’s South Side. The large shelving units along the walls were also built in-house, as is the shop’s entry desk, also made of wood and featuring the store’s sunburst logo. The custom millwork is something that sets 555 apart from other design firms and also gives clients like Harvest their own, special look.
“We wanted something that was unique to this business,” Geier says. “We deliver a full package.”
For the private lounge section, 555 chose to keep the homey feel that gave people places to sit and read or work, while still allowing for groups to congregate and have fun. Geier says it came out like a coffee shop with comfortable lounge chairs and a large, single-slab “king’s table” as a focal point.
The second part of 555’s job was making sure that not only did the space look good, it actually functioned well as a retail outlet, displaying the products in such a way to make people want to buy them, something the firm does with every retail shop it designs.
For Geier and his team, that meant deciding the best way to show off a small product, as opposed to something bigger, like a hockey jersey. And while there are special considerations and regulations involved in the display of the product, generally speaking, the same rules apply for selling marijuana as any other similar-sized item.
“Ultimately, I would say the display aspects are the same as most of our clients,” he says. “Retail sales is retail sales.”
Smaller, more delicate products can’t be displayed at the bottom of a case, which must include the proper viewing angle, Geier says. The best comparison, he says, is jewelry, in which product must be displayed higher up and under proper lighting so customers do not have to stoop too far or strain to see the product.
According to Geier, if a display case is located between the sales associate and the customers, the typical height for small merchandise is 42 inches. Fixtures and display cases along the walls can reach as high as 72 inches or as low as 36 inches.
“A lot of people are forcing their stuff into stock cases,” he says.
But in addition to the cases, Geier says the store had to reflect a sales model that allows shoppers to speak with employees about the products, as well as allowing self-shoppers to move at their own pace.
At Harvest, that means keeping an open layout, not cluttering the sales floor with too many displays and leaving space for employees and customers to talk about the products. Unlike many dispensaries, products are accessible and customers can walk through the store with a basket to do their shopping. It’s a major part of the experience, advertised on the shop’s website as “Browse, touch, ask and enjoy the Harvest difference.”
Geier says his firm also took into consideration such “Retail 101” items like display placement on the floor, lighting and the creation of a path through the shop that leads through the products and back to sales staff. His firm even helped create planograms for the shop — diagrams that function like a flow chart for the store and include product placement and display tips — like they do for the traditional retail spaces they build.
As the competition among cannabis dispensaries and stores continues to increase, Geier says, such considerations will help shops stand apart from each other. Adding custom millwork and other touches aid in creating a distinctive feel for individual stores. As he says, it’s something the retail industry already knows and the cannabis industry is slowly catching up with.
“There’s so much value in making sure this industry is starting to act like real retail merchandisers,” Geier says.