Level Up: Cannabis Culture’s Q & A with Dispensary Designer Megan Stone

CANNABIS CULTURE – From inner space to outer space, Cannabis Culture interviews High Road Design Studio‘s Megan Stone about the changing face of cannabis retail. 

(Interview edited for content and clarity)

Cannabis Culture: Why is dispensary design important?

Megan Stone: A dispensary design is important because changing the perception society may have of dispensaries is important, and one of the easiest and most direct ways to do that is through design. Most people’s first impression of the cannabis industry happens when they walk into a retail store.

CC: Why are dispensaries important?

MS: Dispensaries are important because they’re the primary place people interact and come into contact with the cannabis industry. If you’re a new patient, you go to the doctor first, in most markets, in the majority of the country, you have to physically walk into a dispensary to access the product.

Delivery is very seldomly regulated and very few people choose to go to delivery for their primary use. Having a stranger come into your home with federally illegal drugs doesn’t always make people feel comfortable. The experience, going in there, the people working there, is going to be incredibly powerful and informative about how you feel about cannabis and your experience with it.

CC: A good dispensary runs from the back. How much integration between front-of-house and back-of-house do your designs implement?

MS: Quite a bit. Because I’ve not only been a patient myself for ten years. I was also a budtender and general manager of dispensaries before I started this design firm. I have a very intimate understanding of how these businesses operate. The design of the space has a huge impact on how the employees do their job, how product moves around, how customers move through the space. In a dispensary that’s really important for safety and security reasons. The way you plan the back of house to integrate with the front of house is incredibly important, not only for operational efficiency, but for safety and security.

CC: What should a prospective dispensary owner know before looking into shop design?

MS: Clients that approach us need to have property secured before they start investing in too much design or architecture. The second thing customers really need a good understanding of is the regulations in their market. Also how they’re trying to operate and serve their customers. Is your sales and service model based on being a high volume retailer who offers lower cost products, trying to see as many people a day as possible, or are you gearing more towards offering a consultation, one-on-one experience? Where people can come in and learn as much as they need about products from an employee, to gain a level of comfort. Those are the questions we start with. We also talk about the client’s brand, about what their brand is trying to say. Who they’re trying to be, what the personality, style and tone of the brand is. That’s all is very important to the direction we take with design.

CC: What are the challenges unique to dispensary design?

MS: Not many retailers out there are in the business of selling something that, in the US, is still illegal at the federal level, and is required to be bought in cash. That reality right there fundamentally drives the dispensary experience, and what we have to think of for design sensibility and compliance and operations. Regulations are different not only from state to state, but municipality to municipality. Just because I’ve designed a store in Portland doesn’t mean I know anything about what I need to know for designing a dispensary elsewhere. Each market is different and has different restrictions that pertain in some manner to that retail store.

You know also we’re selling a product that is a little unique in how people use it. You know it’s a wellness product, a medicine, it saves people’s lives, but it’s also something people use for enjoyment and relaxation and pure pleasure. So you have to balance all those things, too. Because you’re going to be serving customers who use the product in all those ways. The space itself has to be conducive to some level of private, discreet, intimate discussion about your customer’s health, but it also has to be an engaging, exciting retail space that encourages people to learn about the product, and discover new products. To try something they didn’t want to try when they walked in. That’s unique.

The landscape of cannabis is changing so rapidly. When I started working in a dispensary 7 years ago, we were pretty much just selling flower and maybe some bubble hash, maybe brownies. That was the extent of our product line. A short seven years later and you have theses stores that have dozens of varieties of flower, you have concentrates, concentrate pens, edibles, beverages, tinctures, capsules, trans-dermal patches, chewing gum, you name it. You name it. The product landscape is constantly changing. The retail store has to be able to change and grow with the rapid pace of the industry and most other retail spaces don’t quite have that rapid evolution going on.

CC: With all the changes in the industry, would you recommend stores finding a niche product line?

MS: No. It’s really important these stores are designed to be flexible and to accommodate the changes that come. You don’t want to put a client in a position where you’ll be limiting their growth. It all comes down to fixture planning, display planning, visual merchandising, product storage. Always plan things knowing things are going to change. We try to make things flexible. We try to leave the client with a design and visual merchandising plan that they can continue to tailor as things change. We leave them with those tools so they can produce and print their product signs on demand as new strains comes in. Prices, supplies, inventory. All change. They’re flexible, so they can be used in more than one way or with more than one product.

CC: Laws are changing. Cannabis users are demanding their rights, and an increase in on-site consumption is apparent. How do you see dispensary designs changing as a result, and have you been approached about designing lounges?

MS: I do look forward to that becoming a regulated way for this experience to evolve. I’m excited personally as a cannabis patient and consumer myself, to have a third space to go to where I can consume cannabis. Right now it’s really something we have to enjoy in our homes, friends’ homes, and very discrete areas. Right now the regulations shaping up around this are vague and nothing is too concrete. It’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds and what the design opportunities are.

CC: How much should a prospective owner budget for design?

MS: That’s a difficult question, the budget per store design. I encourage customers to approach it from a broader lens. Design is investment. The money you spend to plan, build out and differentiate yourself at the store level is something you’re going to appreciate every minute of every day that store is open. It’ll be something your employees appreciate, and your customers appreciate. I enjoy going back and talking to clients who have been in business for a while. It’s really hearing how much pride they can take in what they’ve done unlike all the other ridiculous ways license holders are forced to spend their money to keep their stores open. Between application fees, license fees, the premium that’s paid on every service just because you’re selling cannabis and not some widget. All the money you spend on design you can see, you can put your finger on at the end of the day. It’s not so much about trying to fit everyone within one thing. There’s gonna be costs for any type of improvement, whether you’re investing in additional design or are trying to create a space and be licensed for code. Design doesn’t drive all the costs in construction. You want to think about how long your service is going to be open and how important it is for you to offer something unique and differentiate it from your competitors. What value you want to place on that tangible asset of your real estate.

CC: What’s an absolute no-no for a dispensary?

MS: The lobby experience. There’s a lot more creativity that can be done with the lobby of the dispensary. The lobby has to be a secure point of access, it has to be a place for members of the public to step in and where they can know if someone is deemed a qualified patient or a qualified customer or not. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be this small little man-trap with bullet-proof window holes that you have to walk up to and already feel like you’re doing something wrong. It can be a very open and inviting place.

Have the security element concealed into it. The lobby is the first impression for cannabis dispensaries and making sure that is a welcoming, inviting, memorable environment to step into and to exit out of is one of the surprisingly important spaces in the dispensary.

I always have to talk clients through not what your business is going to look like for the first one or two months, but how are you going to be functioning after six months or a year, when your customers are familiar with your store, your product. You’ve really grown a loyal following. You have to make sure your experience can cater to the people who are trying to come in and grab their product and go, and people who need that high level of customer service.

More and more, and at every design, we’re incorporating some kind of express lane, or order pick-up, or some kind of expedited service line. So these clients, busy shops, they’re able to help both high volume customers and new customers.

CC: What would your immediate advice be for people opening shops in the following locations: Outer space?

MS: (Laughing.) Outer space? Glass walls. View out. Good lighting.

CC: Hot air balloon?

MS: Wind barriers.

CC: Inside a volcano?

MS: Air conditioning and humidifiers.

CC: Inside a human body?

MS: Large selection of edibles.

CC: A raid-friendly location in a prohibition state?

MS: (Laughing.) The High Road Design Studio always recommends having a valid licence to operate a dispensary before you go investing in real estate.

CC: But if you didn’t?

MS: Well … I don’t know. Thinking back to when the dispensary I worked in got raided, secret doors. Trap doors. Revolving … (laughing) revolving display cases, like speakeasys used to have (laughing).

CC: Thank you for speaking to us, Megan.

MS: Thank you so much.


Anil Sthankiya is an award-winning screenwriter/producer, and the Managing Editor of Pot.TV.