Cannabis Retailers in Canada- Overcoming the Challenges

Posted on December 18, 2019 by Bud Morris

Cannabis Retailers in Canada- Overcoming the Challenges

Posted on December 18, 2019 by Bud Morris

For cannabis retailers in Canada, standing out takes more than just a stellar product lineup.

A little over a year ago, Canada made its mark as one of the few countries in the world to legalize recreational cannabis. Since legalization, cannabis retailers in Canada are coming up with unique spaces where brands and customers alike can delight in a new brand experience. One where cannabis is bought and sold directly to consumers in luxury environments that are atypical of the grunge-type head shops so commonly associated with cannabis sales. 

But with high-end cannabis retail comes its own set of challenges, like marketing restrictions and curated in-store experiences, which many cannabis retailers have to tackle head-on if they want to be relevant and profitable. Let’s take a look at how some cannabis brands are doing just that, and how you can do the same.

Getting ready to roll

Opening your first, fifth or umpteenth location is exciting, but timelines are everything, and for cannabis retailers in Canada, this means being cognizant of jurisdictions, regulations, licensing, leasing agreements and much more. Beyond the politics, you have to consider realistic timelines for a store opening.

Whether your store will be an educational center, an experiential hub for customers, or a simple retail space, there must be an emphasis on managing both operations and expectations. Making assumptions about how quickly your store can get up and running can lead to design mistakes, dysfunctional spaces and unsuccessful store launches. For brands, a poorly-planned space can be the difference between positive customer experience and purchases, and an empty store with low foot traffic.

Consider elements like the planning of your space, fixtures and displays, lighting and merchandising, integrating your POS systems, to name a few. Working with an experienced team who understands the nuances of a store opening will help you successfully open your retail location, but it’s important to keep standards in mind. At CBSF, we willingly go above and beyond to help clients launch their store and work closely with them to establish realistic timelines.

Understanding cannabis retail design 

While cannabis is legal in Canada, what you can and cannot do with your retail space is more restricted. Beyond just finding the right location, designing and customizing a retail space for cannabis requires retailers to not only keep provincial regulations in mind but also customer experience. 

In many provinces, both cannabis and its accessories can’t be visible from the exterior of a retail store, which limits how retailers can advertise their space to the general public. But the interior design of a store and the showcasing of products can be customized using elements like custom shelving and display units, sensory display areas and more. 

Four20 Premium Market in Alberta is a great example of a cannabis retailer that uses custom displays and design elements to highlight cannabis products while sticking to provincial legislation. Using retail designs that are unique to each location – like minimally furnished spaces with wood accents, glass product displays and ‘bud bars,’ pops of soft colours and exposed brick – Four20 creates personalized in-store experiences for customers that focus on customer service and staff expertise at each store, making their retail approach feel more boutique than it does illicit. 

Four20 Premium Market

Takeaway: With the right custom displays, fixtures and retail design, cannabis retailers in Canada like Four20 optimize the in-store shopping experience and drive foot traffic to their physical locations.

Working with restricted marketing opportunities 

For cannabis retailers and producers, marketing opportunities are limited. In fact, the Government of Canada has made it quite clear that marketing and advertising cannabis products, especially in-store, can violate a range of regulations set by Health Canada. 

Every marketing tactic from depicting a certain lifestyle to sponsoring events or big social ad spend campaigns are all restricted, which is why many cannabis retailers rely on their spaces and the knowledgeable staff that fill them to help educate customers on product and brand. 

Fire and Flower, one of the more bespoke cannabis retailers in Canada, uses their retail spaces as marketing hubs by focusing their attention on personalized service and education. The brand tailors the layout and aesthetic of its retail spaces to be minimal and open, using retail design elements like bright lighting, backlit, built-in shelving and spaces for living greenery to create welcoming spaces for beginners and connoisseurs alike. The advantage? Customers feel relaxed in the store and free to ask questions or peruse products thanks to Fire and Flower marketing their retail locations as boutique educational spaces. 

Fire and Flower

Takeaway: Using your retail space to educate customers and provide value can drive offline foot traffic to your physical locations, all while creating unique marketing opportunities.

Enhancing the in-store experience beyond product 

Getting both experienced and novice customers through the door for more than just a one-time product purchase comes down to one key factor: the in-store experience. Brands like Tokyo Smoke and Tweed create retail experiences that keep customers coming back. 

Tokyo Smoke, a cannabis retailer created in 2015, focuses its in-store experience on the customer first, positioning their products in a way that puts lifestyle first. Their experiential stores are coffee houses, typically nestled in high-traffic areas in cities like Toronto, where customers can visit for coffee, food, and high-end cannabis accessories. Some locations are used for workshops and events with the goal of educating customers on cannabis. What’s more, their coffee houses are designed as social, physical hubs for community building around a common passion: coffee. The retail stores are designed to be at once minimal and eclectic, pairing verticals like craft coffee with craft cannabis accessories for a unique approach to brick and mortar.

Tokyo Smoke

Tweed, another cannabis producer and retailer in Canada, took a similar approach to Tokyo Smoke by making their physical retail spaces modern, minimal experiential stores. Many of the brand’s locations are designed as showrooms, where customers can purchase clothing, accessories, and cannabis in highly-curated retail spaces. Every element, from product displays to lighting reflect an upscale environment where customers feel welcome to peruse and learn more about the cannabis sold at each retail location. The entire in-store experience centers around the customer, using displays to educate shoppers and tell the brand story.

Tweed retail store
Source: CNW Group/Tweed

Takeaway: Don’t just focus on the product you sell, but the experience you create and provide for your customers. The experience is what will keep them coming back, so take a page out of Tweed and Tokyo Smoke’s book and consider whether your retail space exceeds the expectations for customer experience beyond product and merchandising!

Making a brand (not just its products) accessible 

Even the largest cannabis brands have accessibility issues, regardless of whether they’re medical, recreational or both. That means brands have to work even harder in today’s legal cannabis market to make their entire brand (and not just their products) accessible to customers. 

City Cannabis Co., a boutique brand that offers curated product selections across all of its physical retail spaces, focuses on accessibility not only through its strategic locations but by tailoring every store to a range of customers – experienced users, curious customers or those who want to rediscover cannabis now that it has been legalized. 

What’s more interesting about City Cannabis Co. is how the brand in general reflects Vancouver, its diverse culture of people and lifestyles, and the environment of the city as a whole. The company isn’t striving to stand out just with product – it wants to make the entire experience – from discovery through to purchase – accessible, simple, and approachable, even if you’ve never used cannabis before.

From retail design and display to staff, education, product selection, location and more, City Cannabis Co. makes it a point to be inclusive and open to customers from all walks of life and experience levels.

City Cannabis Co.

Takeaway: Thinking about your customers as people and not just shoppers can have a significant impact on customer experience and purchasing opportunities, making your brand more accessible for customer segments that you may be missing out on.


Regardless of industry, your retail space plays a large role in the in-store experience customers have. Keep them coming back for more with spaces that work for your customer experience! Contact us today to discover how our expert team can help you achieve your retail goals.