Retail Design in Cannabis: Creating an Inclusive Brand Experience in a Restricted Sector

Posted on March 18, 2020 by Michael Benarroch

Retail Design in Cannabis: Creating an Inclusive Brand Experience in a Restricted Sector

Posted on March 18, 2020 by Michael Benarroch

Creating an experience that at once wows and informs customers is no easy feat in the Canadian cannabis industry. But it can be done.

In 2018, Canada became the second country in the world to legalize recreational marijuana on a national scale. But even so, the Canadian cannabis industry is still largely restricted, both in terms of government regulations and in how cannabis brands market their products in-store. One element brands are turning to is retail design in cannabis.

Strong branding is helping to change consumer perceptions, transforming the images of secretive, black light-fueled pot shops into refined, sophisticated dispensaries that build trust and cater to a broader range of users.

If cannabis retailers in Canada want to bring their products to the mainstream, the only way to do so is to create an inclusive brand experience where everyone not only feels like they belong, but where their in-store experience is unforgettable. 

Defining the moments of your customer’s journey

Regardless of experience with cannabis, each customer that comes through your door is on a journey. Some may be looking for a specific strain, while others are still figuring out if cannabis is right for them. A thoughtfully designed store can have a lot to do with how they move from one stage to the next, engage with your brand, and make informed buying decisions.

Let’s look at the various touch points you create with each customer and how they can impact the buying journey:


Before a customer enters your store, consider how they discover you in the first place. Maybe it’s through a local search online, your social media, news coverage or from the recommendation of a friend. Each of these outlets sets expectations for your customer. They get a sense of what it’s like to shop in your store and connect with your brand. Your branding and retail design should align to ensure the right expectations are set — and met.

Curb appeal

First impressions are everything both in branding and in customer experience. The outside of your shop sets the tone for what your customers will find inside. But for cannabis retailers, what you can do with the exterior of your store is restricted, which means the way your store is presented from the outside should match the aesthetic inside without advertising cannabis, cannabis accessories or a cannabis ‘lifestyle’. That said, never underestimate the value that curb appeal can bring to your store and how customers perceive your store because of it. 

The Decompression Zone

The first few feet inside a cannabis dispensary (or any retail shop, for that matter), is referred to as the decompression zone. This is where shoppers stop and take in their surroundings. They need time to acclimate to the smells, sounds, temperature, and general vibe, and will often make the decision to stay or leave at this point.

This is a pivotal section of your shop and should be given great attention to make it inviting and comforting.

The Lobby

After decompressing, shoppers will look for where to go next. In dispensaries, a lobby or check-in point can provide more direction while introducing customers to your branding and the in-store experience they can expect to have while visiting your physical retail store.

Consultation Areas

One on one consultations are private or semi-private in dispensaries and should be designed to take the edge off the shopper. The staff has a lot to do with this, but good design can also induce feelings of calmness and inclusion.

Show Room

The showroom is where you highlight your cannabis products. From full flowers and edibles to topicals, accessories and more. 

The way in which your products are displayed can communicate several important things:

●       The quality of the products

●       The value and price

●       Popularity and importance

So, it’s important that your store fixtures, product displays and sensory areas are optimized to help ensure your customer has as memorable of an experience as possible. Lighting, for example, can be used not just in your store’s ceiling but also in product displays and cases, along or below counter tops, as backlighting for branded elements around your store, or used as alternating lighting when showcasing specific/feature products. 

Sensory experience sections of your store are also a great opportunity to highlight different product types (like flower versus oil), popularity, and quality. If customers can smell, touch and see a range of flower, for instance, they can better connect with and experience the product. The way you design and setup these areas of your store can impact whether customers walk by or walk out. 

Point of Sale

The place where your customers stop to purchase their products can also leave a lasting impression on your customer. Checkout counters that are difficult for customers to access, or don’t leave enough room for queues, can be frustrating for customers trying to complete their purchase. Taking into consideration every element – even down to storage, where check out counters have space to store pick-up orders or secure cabinets that hold product until sales are finalized – will help you optimize your point of sale area.

The same can be said for checkout areas or counters that are cramped, small, or don’t showcase additional products/accessories. This is the perfect opportunity to not only present limited edition products or new features, but give customers something to interact with when waiting to check out – and that can mean more sales and repeat customers.

Overlooked Spaces

Pay attention to spaces that aren’t immediately visible, such as the backroom or the restroom. Customers may get a glimpse of these areas, intentionally or unintentionally. A messy, unfinished back room doesn’t reflect the high-end experience you’ve created in the rest of the store. It also shows that products may not be cared for or stored in a way that preserves quality, which can cause customers to doubt whether they’re getting the quality product you’ve told them they are when they make a purchase. 

The best way to think of these spaces is to consider them as additional value-adds for your customers. A beautiful store bathroom, for example, that is designed in keeping with the rest of your retail design, keeps a sense of continuity and also shows that you care about the entire customer experience, not just the typical touchpoints and checkout.

Overcoming the cannabis stigma through strategic brand design

Using the above touchpoints, Canadian cannabis retailers can employ strategic decisions in their brand design to create a comprehensive, inclusive experience for their customers.

Move past the traditional head shop motif

The old head shop motif that was so prevalent before legalization has been stepped up by luxury displays and custom-designed retail environments that elevate an industry typically hurt by misconceptions and stigma. It also doesn’t hurt that many Cannabis retailers are competing for the attention of similar customer demographics, which means most are willing to go the extra mile to make sure their retail design and experience stand out. 

For example, Toronto’s first dispensary, Hunny Pot CORE, spans an impressive four floors with a center gallery in the trendy Queen West neighborhood, adding greenery and hints of honeycomb for a natural vibe. Meta Cannabis embodies a spa-like salon vibe in its store, putting minds and stigma at ease.

A decade ago, these store spaces wouldn’t have been linked to cannabis culture, but as more dispensaries are following a similar design path, comfortable upscale is becoming par for the course.

Create an inclusive experience

Cannabis retailers in Canada must realize that the “typical” cannabis user isn’t as niche as it once was. As with any good retail design, cannabis retailers must take into account their end-user — and, depending on the Province, means that anyone of a certain legal age may walk through your door at any given time.

That means creating an in-store experience where people not only want to enter your store but stay. Here are a few ways you can help keep your customers in-store (and coming back again).

  • Consultation rooms – offer privacy and comfort to customers who want more information or product advice without speaking too candidly in front of other customers. Consultation rooms are not only a great way of providing the next level of service, but can also be designed to reflect your brand and store design continuity
  • Outfit your lobby – treat your store’s lobby like home by offering customers the ability to hang their coats in supervised spaces, or by offering tea/water/coffee to customers who first enter your store. 
  • Invite customers to stay – adding comfortable furniture or seating rooms to your store can help customers feel more comfortable and welcome while browsing, or talking to knowledgeable staff about products and accessories. It’s also an easy way of adding a dimension to your store that complements the design. 

The more retailers are able to help customers feel comfortable in-store and help destigmatize their product, the better chance they have of broadening their clientele and bringing customers back, time and again.

Become more than just a retailer

Arguably the greatest challenge that cannabis brands face is becoming more than a commodity peddler or a generic ‘head shop’. Ardent advocates for cannabis are often the first to say that cannabis products aren’t your average retail items that you can grab off the shelf and hand over your wallet, nor should retailers treat them as such.

Rather, cannabis retailers also assume the roles of consultant, health advocate, and hospitality concierge. They educate and guide their customer’s decisions and play an integral role in product selection. They become a partner in each user’s cannabis journey, understanding goals and answering questions so that customers not only become repeat business, but also brand advocates for the dispensary (and the cannabis industry at large).

Every dispensary and retail shop has the unique opportunity to create support for cannabis and bring a sense of mainstream normalcy to the products. It’s been a hard-fought battle so far, whose efforts are finally starting to pay off, and now retailers are tasked with helping to take the industry to new highs — discover how cannabis brands are overcoming retail challenges in Canada in our recent article.


Having built thousands of retail environments for hundreds of North America’s largest and smallest brands, we know what it takes to grow a retail business from their 3rd location to their 4th, or from their 10th to their 20th, or even from their 100th to their 1000th.

Consistently willing to do whatever it takes, here at CBSF we design and build retail environments your competitors will be envious of – an experience shoppers will feel, intangible elements that will draw them in, all while contributing to your bottom line. Get in touch with us today to discover how we can help you create a retail environment your customers can’t get enough of.