When Canada began moving toward the national legalization of adult-use cannabis, Geoff Dear saw reports showing alcohol sales dropped by 10% in the U.S. states where marijuana had been legalized.
As a native Vancouverite whose family happens to run 13 private liquor stores in British Columbia, Dear scoured the U.S. to see if cannabis would be worth the investment for his family’s business. They eventually decided cannabis would be a great way to diversify and opened the first Muse cannabis store in the heart of downtown Vancouver in the spring of 2019.
“There were a lot of synergies between private liquor and cannabis retail,” says Dear, the company’s president. “Specifically, in the province of British Columbia, there’s a lot of parallels in regard to the legislation, the provincial government involvement, the kind of red tape and hoops you have to jump through to get into the business.”
Now with its flagship location open for business and another two stores approved, Muse is finding its footing in a country that allows mail-order cannabis to compete with brick-and-mortar retailers and in a city that’s slowly transitioning from the gray market.
From Apple to Orange
When Dear visited Oregon, Washington and Colorado to see what recreational cannabis looked like in the United States, the phrase “Apple Store of Cannabis” was thrown around a lot by employees of the stores he visited.
Indeed, the stores were bright, square and filled with tech. But Dear envisioned cannabis as warm and relaxing, something that feels good — an entirely different vibe from the bright lights and electronic screens of tech retailers.
By the time he began designing his own cannabis retail shop, he intended it to feel like a “big, red, leather couch.”
“I wanted to build something that when you walked in it was richer tones and warmer lighting, more of a lounge, artsier kind of feel with a lot less tech,” he says.
The charm of Muse is in its simplicity. At a quick glance, the store looks as though it could have been built in 1919 instead of 2019. Red leather armchairs — at the same time functional and emblematic — surround a Persian rug near the front of the store; exposed ceilings and hardwood floors give the space an open, airy feeling; a combination of wood, brick and glass between the 14-foot white walls almost completely hide modern conveniences like the touchscreens on the display tables.
“The tech is still there but it’s a lot more subtle so it’s not in your face,” Dear says.
Muse’s motif extends to the exterior of the store. The black, hand-painted, wooden exterior with the words “Cannabis Store” in plain sight is a fitting complement to its neighboring shops, a commercial art gallery and an Italian clothing store. But Dear says the opaque windows block passersby from seeing the full design of the store.
“It creates a lot of confusion for customers because they don’t know if you are a legal store or an illegal store,” Dear says. “That was one of the biggest challenges; people couldn’t see through these windows to see that we built this amazing space and see what we were up to in there.”
Crawling before Walking
Vancouver has long taken a progressive stance on cannabis, allowing city-licensed retailers well before national legalization came into the picture. The city, Dear says, has been “respectful and appreciative of the fact that these people have been in business and paying taxes for a bunch of years.”
But now, those “gray market” cannabis stores are slowly being shut down, paving the way for provincially licensed retailers like Muse to gain a larger share of the market, despite stifling regulations that prohibit most traditional forms of advertising and limit the use of social media. Licensed retailers can’t even suggest that cannabis might pair well with a movie or concert — stipulations, of course, that their unregulated competitors do not have to follow.
Even though Muse is caught between federal regulations and illicit competition, Dear remains optimistic that both the government and the gray market will eventually get out of the way of recreational cannabis.
“I’m not trying to be too critical of what the provincial government is doing,” he says, “and, knowing that it had a pretty daunting task in federally legalizing cannabis in Canada, it’s a pretty huge gig. So, all things considered, it’s going pretty well.”
Dear believes the regulations will normalize in the next year or two as people become more comfortable with the new market. Until then, Muse relies heavily on word of mouth and the strength of the company’s well-educated staff.
Dear saw customer services as a primary way for Muse to differentiate itself from the competition. He wanted everyone working for the company to be able to speak intelligently about the cannabis plant’s biology, much like wine sommeliers in a high-end restaurant. But rather than searching for candidates with experience in customer service and a working knowledge of cannabis, Muse prefers to onboard new staff members by providing onsite training and sending them to CannaReps in Vancouver, essentially a cannabis sommelier bootcamp.
Dear says CannaReps’ classroom setting and exam questions are both challenging and fun and give Muse employees a great deal of practical knowledge.
“I think they [CannaReps] took a page out of the liquor industry, where if you work in liquor or hospitality you go take a sommelier course, so you’ve got the knowledge to back it up,” he says.
Although the Muse staff’s main job is “to listen and know everyone’s body is going to react differently to cannabis,” each employee is trained on everything from the workings of the endocannabinoid system to identifying the genetic traits of Blue Dream.
“With Muse we wanted to build an incredible space, but the way we wanted the customer to experience it was a lot more humble, more of a family, caring atmosphere, so the staff, their perspective is that they want to respect everyone’s journey that comes into the store,” he says. “Muse’s mission statement is on the wall: ‘It’s a journey of discovery and perspective,’ because it’s new to a lot of people, it’s a lot of fun and it helps a lot of people’s lives.”