Designing a Dispensary that Delights Customers with Megan Stone

Megan Stone

Megan Stone the founder of the The High Road Design Studio shares how most dispensaries are not optimized for an optimal customer experience. Megan shows us how to design a dispensary from the ground up to be attractive, functional and secure.

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Learn more: http://thrdesignstudio.com/

Key Takeaways:
[1:25] – Megan discusses her background and design expertise
[4:33] – How do you get to be a bud tender with no experience
[7:14] – How dispensaries can make first time customers feel welcome
[10:52] – Megan discusses common mistakes dispensaries make
[17:02] – How do you integrate security into a dispensary
[19:32] – Megan talks about displays at dispensaries
[23:47] – How should flower rooms look
[28:02] – Contact details for High Road Design Studio

Read Full Transcript

Matthew: Hi, I’m Matthew Kind. Every Monday and Wednesday look for a fresh episode where I’ll take you behind the scenes and interview the leaders of the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at www.cannainsider.com. That’s www.cannainsider.com. Do you know that feeling when you sense opportunity, when you see something before most people and you just know it will be successful, then you're ready. Ready for CannaInsider Consulting. Learn more at www.canninsider.com/consulting. Now here's your program.

If you have had the opportunity to be in a cannabis dispensary, you’ll notice there is a huge variance in how you feel when you walk in. Some are welcoming. Some feel like a frat house basement. Megan Stone is the founder of the High Road Design Studio. She’s going to share with us how to create a dispensary that welcomes and embraces customers and patients, but is also functional for the business owners and employees. Welcome to CannaInsider Megan.

Megan: Thanks so much Matthew.

Matthew: To give us a sense of geography, can you tell us where you are in the world today?

Megan: Definitely. I run the High Road Design Studio out of my home office in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Matthew: How nice. Nice place to be. And what is your background in the cannabis industry and why did you start High Road Design Studio?

Megan: I’ve been involved in the cannabis industry in one way or another for the past eight years, and I first started off in the cannabis industry as a patient. I was a consumer. I was someone who used these stores for my own wellness and medical needs. And after having been involved from the patient consumer standpoint for about three years, I was living in Orange County, California and going through interior design school. And the local shop that I had started going to for my medical marijuana, a nice upscale, very professionally run, safe inviting place. They offered me a job as the bud tender.

So I very willingly took the position. I was very excited about it. At the time it was 2010 and the cannabis industry wasn’t something that you planned a career in. So I figured my student status made it all right for me to take this kind of interesting, fun, very unique part time job. And not long after getting involved as an employee in this industry did I fall in love and just really find the value and all of the great benefits and positive impacts that this industry has on people’s lives every single day.

After a couple of years of bud tender, I was promoted to general manager of the store. And shortly after being promoted we acquired a second location. So we had two stores operating. While I was managing both of them I had the opportunity to remodel the stores and just really have that day to day, full time longevity in the industry. And by the time I was finishing my design degree, the industry had grown and evolved to the point where having a career in the industry was something that was possible. So that’s when I took my design degree and paired it with my interest in the industry and started the High Road.

Matthew: So you didn’t feel back then like hey maybe this cannabis thing is not going to go anywhere, but now it’s so clear, but at the time it probably didn’t feel like it.

Megan: Exactly, you know, 2010 was a very tumultuous year for the cannabis industry actually, if you look back. You know there were a few states with medical marijuana laws on the books at the time, but it was really California and Colorado who had the most significant markets, and nobody was on the table at that point in time for recreational marijuana. The government at the time was actually raiding these businesses and really trying to shrink the industry. So it was actually a very uneasy time to be involved in the industry and there wasn’t a bright future. But things changed very very fast in the cannabis world, and you know fast forward five years and it’s now the fastest growing industry in the country.

Matthew: Now while we’re still on the topic of bud tenders, I want to ask because I get emailed several times a day for people who want to get into the industry and specifically be bud tenders. What’s a good way to get your foot in the door as a bud tender if you have no experience but you really want to do it?

Megan: Shops these days are really looking for high levels of customer service and professional people to help maintain their business image and their reputation and the high level of service it takes to be competitive in this industry. If you really want to be a bud tender, my biggest recommendation would be to treat it as though you were applying for any other professional job. Don’t tell credentials as a marijuana user or you know, your expertise in the product personally. That is actually something that turns more cannabis business owners off than you would think. We’re trying very hard as an industry to project a more credible, professional you. And we’re really moving away from the stereotype of the pothead, stoner, unprofessional image.

So the clients I work with, staffing is one of the most difficult things because we’re in the middle of having people that want to work for us because they love the product and they’re very interested in it from a person consumption standpoint and finding people who are really quality employees and bring a level of professionalism, a level of sophistication, good knowledge and high levels of customer service to the tables. So present yourself as a professional and treat it like you would a job outside of the cannabis industry, and that I see would be your best bet in securing a job and getting to play a role in this rapidly evolving industry.

Matthew: And I would imagine just being a personable and knowledgeable person is probably two huge things you look for I would imagine.

Megan: Yeah very much so. You know some of the best bud tenders I managed were people who came with a retail background or a background in the hospitality industry. So people who had been servers or bar tenders before or had worked in department stores or other shops. You know the core of the dispensary, it’s really a retail job. You have to be able to know your product line. You have to be able to match your products to what your customers and your patients are needing, but also you know be able to sell in a way that isn’t pushy, isn’t forceful, but is adding value to that patient’s experience.

Matthew: Now most dispensaries don’t do a good job of making first time customers feel like they’re not doing something illegal. There is still this sense like oh my god I’m approaching this, should I be looking over my shoulder as I approach this dispensary. Can you talk a little bit about that and what dispensaries can do to really get rid of that feeling so people feel welcome, especially first time customers?

Megan: Certainly. That whole stigma of walking into a shop and feeling like you’re still doing something illegal even though you’re a registered patient or you’re a legal consumer able to walk into a 21+ store in Colorado or Washington is hard to get away from, and it’s one of the things that I’m really focused on helping to change in this industry. I’m really focused on making this a normal retail experience and something that makes people feel excited and makes people anticipate the experience and makes people want to walk away and tell their friends and neighbors about what they had done that day.

So a few things that shops can do to kind of combat this feeling of shame, for lack of a better word, is again treat your business like a normal retail business would treat it. Put some effort into your image and into your branding, and show that you care as a business who you are and how you’re identified and what you’re presenting to your target market. Making sure that every part of the experience is something that’s positive is also important. So walk through the steps that a patient or customer would take coming to your store. Everything from the first time they spot it from the street to the way your parking lot is set up, organized, clean, maintained, well-lit, to what the door handle feels like. What does the first part of your business that your patient and customer is going to touch. How does that reflect on the entire experience that they’re about to have? And go through the whole process and at every step think where is my patient or customer actually touching my business? What about the chair they sit in in the lobby? What about the counter they lean up against when they’re in the showroom? What about the door handle that they touch when they leave after they’ve paid their money and they’ve got their product to take home?

Think about all those little points and those are all really places where you can elevate that feel of what your shop is doing. You know also if at all possible, bring in natural light. You know, windows can be a security issue, but that doesn’t mean that you have to block them off or put bars over them. If you do need security constraints on your windows, there are very attractive and brilliant ways to do that, and ways that can even help bring your brand onto the window and convey it into the atmosphere.

Matthew: That’s really funny that you mentioned the touch because the touch points, the literal touch points are important. I’ve heard about car manufacturers spending millions and millions of dollars to study the psychology of the thud the car makes, the car door makes when it clicks closed. Does it make you feel like hey there is some confidence here or this is a cheap door. Also like Fed-Ex spends a lot of money making sure when you put something in one of their overnight dropoff bins that there is a sound that conveys, you know, confidence like it’s going to get there. I don’t know how they do this, but you know, companies really study this because those touch points are important.

Megan: Very much so. It’s really all about the experience. And all of those little different points that send a message to our brain about what we’re experiencing and what we’re participating in.

Matthew: Now if you were just to pick maybe two or three dispensaries at random let’s say here in Colorado, what would you just guess because they’re so common the mistakes that they’re making that they could easily improve on?

Megan: Some of the most common mistakes I see in dispensaries, and I’ll just kind of go in order of the way the process actually happens, one is exterior branding. And this is hard because we’re an industry that we’re still regulated on how much we can advertise and what we can say about our business from the outside and what kind of images we can put there. But that being said we are still a business and we are still able to label ourselves. So do you just simply put a sign out there or do you put a sign out there that’s well-lit, maybe three dimensional, uses different materials, catches the eye. You know, maybe is on point with the level of design that your local coffee shop or your local boutique retailer or even your local bakery has done to the exterior of their business. So making first off that first impression, that curb appeal, something that’s attractive and clean and looks like you actually paid some attention to it is a good place to start.

The next point in the process would be the lobby. Make sure that that lobby is something that is easy to get in and out of and easy to wait in. Lobbies are, nothing bothers me more than when you open up a door of a dispensary, you’re coming in off the street, you’re looking for shelter, you’re still moving at almost a full rate of pace and you walk in a door and there’s a line right inside of it and you practically run into the person that’s waiting in line. That’s no way to enter any sort of retail space or service space, let alone a dispensary. In the retail design world there’s a concept called the “Decompression Zone” and basically what that is is it’s sometimes four feet of space, it’s sometimes ten feet of space, but it’s the space inside the entrance to a retail store where nothing happens as far as a sale, as far as a customer message because all that can take place there is the customer’s frame of mind and pace of movement changing from what they were doing outside to what they’re experiencing in the store. People have found that if you put sale messages in this Decompression Zone, if you put advertising in this Decompression Zone, it really is not effective because people just aren’t ready for the experience yet.

Walk through your local mall and you’ll really see that most of the stores you walk into, there’s not a whole lot that happens right immediately inside the store. You’ll see about five to ten feet of space where you’re just kind of allowed to adjust to your environment, and that’s really what the lobby does in our dispensaries. It allows people to kind of come in, catch their breath, realize where they are, make sure that they feel comfortable and then get ready to actually interact with the first employee that they’re going to talk to which is probably either your security guard or your receptionist. So allow them to have that Decompression Space, allow them to come in off the street, take a breath, and then approach the first employee and make that first point of contact.

Where that employee is placed is another thing that you know is kind of a faux pas I see a lot in cannabis retail design. You know a lot of people try to put that person as close to the front door as possible, and that automatically creates that bottleneck. When I work with clients, given the space available, I always try to put that receptionist somewhere back in the space. So you’re actually pulling people through the space. It also gives you the chance to have space to form a line if you need to, and you’re going to need to. Some days are very, very busy in this industry. So use that receptionist as a way to pull your people into the space. They have a target that they can walk towards. It’s a comfortable way to kind of bring them from the door to that first point of contact, and it’s also a great way to get them into the space and out of the way of that entry and exit point.

Matthew: You mentioned a spa earlier, it sounds like you’re really trying to be delicate on the senses when someone first comes in. Are you seeing more dispensaries that are kind of trying to have a spa-like feel?

Megan: Yeah. As we have more and more target markets that we’re able to reach in this industry, more and more people I think are looking for that high end retail experience. And that’s really similar to what a spa-type environment provides or even any sort of beauty industry, whether it’s a nail salon or a high end hair salon or anything like that. So a sense of that’s calm, professional, clean, kind of a step down from a medical feel, but even some, you know, dentists offices are really becoming design Mecca of their own selves. And that’s a really good place to look for design inspiration for our businesses too because they’re there to provide a professional service. It’s again based on health in the medical sector, but dentistry has almost become like a retail business as well, and they’ve done a really great job of providing and experience and providing something that maybe makes you want to spend an extra couple of bucks on the teeth whitening or the accessories or the extra care or the cleaning or you know even the cosmetic dentistry, but at the same time, you know, making that experience match that level of care and product.

Matthew: Now that we know how it’s supposed to feel, it’s supposed to be warm and inviting and people should have a decompression zone, we also have to talk about security because you know that’s probably something we don’t want customers to really even notice it’s there, but it needs to be very secure and also functional for employees and business owners behind the scenes. What can you tell us about integrating security into a dispensary?

Megan: Sure. Well I think this kind of goes back to your previous question about what common mistakes dispensary owners make. I think failing to really integrate their security into the design is one of the things you commonly see. We need these shops to be safe and secure. There is still a lucrative black market for the products we sell, and these are all cash businesses for the most part. So people are aware that these businesses are kind of sitting ducks and definitely have something to go after an illicit standpoint.

So security is always important, but just because we have to design ourselves like banks doesn’t mean we have to feel like banks. So being able to plan well for security and make sure that surveillance is kept in mind, making sure that the sight lines in our show room allow our bud tenders and our employees to see what’s going on in the space and have a good eye on anybody that’s in there and watch and make sure that products aren’t being taken when they’re being touched and examined is very important. You know you never want tall displays in front of a bud tender. You kind of want to work from lowest height to tallest height in the order of how the customer approaches the employee.

But planning for this is important because again it goes back to the feeling of am I doing something wrong. If I’m in a place that I can see all 20 security cameras and that is the main accessory that’s been incorporated into the space, you feel a little off put, it’s a little off putting. And that’s all something that, you know, casinos, think of the level of security that we have in casinos, but think of the level that they take their design to to still make sure that that experience is the first and foremost identifying characteristic of the space.

Matthew: Right. They want you to know you’re being watched but feel comfortable about it somehow.

Megan: Exactly. Such a common theme in society today.

Matthew: In terms of displaying goods, you know, not only flower and edibles, infused products but also maybe a consumption apparatus like bongs or pipes and things like that, how should a perspective or a current dispensary owner think about displays in terms of cannabis at dispensaries?

Megan: Well it depends on the environment you’re going for. If you’re going for a high end, upscale environment, the way you display your product is very indicative of that atmosphere and that experience you’re trying to create. So with a high-end client I always talk to them about having very well edited displays and talk about the difference between displaying their inventory versus displaying the product they’re trying to sell. A good example of this is bakeries or cupcake shops. They have some of the most beautiful products on display, but it doesn’t always mean that what’s on display is exactly what they pick up and put into your bag to buy. You know a lot of times they will have preserved versions of their product.

Think wedding cake shops, beautiful beautiful examples of the products they provide, but they don’t exactly sell the inventory right off the floor, and I think that this is important. There’s a difference between walking into a jewelry store that has 400 rings on display in a glass case and walking into Tiffany’s that has maybe one $10,000 displayed in its very own case with great lighting and a great pedestal and maybe a little bit of merchandizing and props around it. So editing your displays to have a more elegant, more exclusive feel really sets a tone in your stores and can help sell product more.

Another good thing is having the proper lighting. Don’t just depend on your florescent ceiling lights to sell your products or to make them look well. Our product that we sell in this industry is something beautiful. There’s so much color to it. There’s so much texture to it. And making sure that there’s decent lighting, accent lighting, track lighting, anything that needs to be there to help accentuate that product and kind of give it some life and some experience is really important. Your signage is also really important. So are you displaying products in an upscale way, and does the signage you’re using to describe and provide information about those products is that in line with that same level of sophistication. Are you handwriting things on folded pieces of paper or are you printing things off in your brand front, in your brand colors, in your brand style. Those are very important things too, making sure that things are professionally, cleanly labeled and merchandized is very good.

And then finally adjacencies are really important in displays. And what adjacencies are it describes how putting one product next to another creates a spark and can sell more of one or both products. So a good example of this in the cannabis environment is concentrates and vaporizers. You know, are you providing those things in close proximity to each other so as your bud tender is talking to your customer about the concentrate product line, it’s a very easy segway and a very easy way to bring up the vaporizer that they can consume these concentrates with. So that adjacency key point can really benefit both the customer and the business owner. The customer benefits because they walk out with more solutions than they probably knew they were looking for, and everybody’s happy when they find new, better ways to either get their medicine or to enjoy the product that they came in to buy. And a business owner always loves being able to add on sales to the ticket price and provide more solutions to that person. Not only does it make your customers more loyal and excited to come back, but it obviously increases your revenue and positively affects your bottom-line.

Matthew: Now when a customer’s chatting with the bud tender, what’s the ideal environment when that first conversation is first conversation is going on? Do you not recommend partitions then for a semi-sense of privacy when you’re in like a flower room or what do you suggest there? Does all the people in the flower room who are looking at products, are they kind of open together by the displays, each talking to a bud tender? Because I’ve seen some that almost seem like confessionals.

Megan: Yeah. You know there’s really three different types of customers in this industry, and it’s important to design ways to accommodate each of them in your store. So you have that first time patient that is coming in, maybe is very inexperienced with the process and the product and needs a high level of one-on-one private consultative service. So you know maybe a lot of times we’re seeing people actually begin to design consultation rooms in their location. So you know places where you can actually go and close the door and have those very discreet, intimate conversation about people’s medical needs and their questions about the product.

In those instances a lot of times there’s a selected patient educator or a patient outreach coordinator that handles those first time sensitive cases and kind of walks them through the process from start to finish. So yes you have to be able to provide that level of discreet one-on-one consultation with the patients who need it, and design some sort of space or some sort of area in your showroom to accommodate those types of patients.

The second type of patient then is the one that’s pretty familiar with the process. They come in a couple times a week actually, and even though they know exactly what they typically like, and they know all about your product line, they still love that experience of talking with the bud tender of looking at all the new products, of seeing what’s the latest and greatest, smelling the Blue Dream even though they’ve bought it from you for the past six months straight. They want that engaged experience, and they are really your bread and butter customer. They are the ones that are going to be your biggest brand ambassador. They’re the ones that are going to be your biggest fans on social media and on your dispensary website reviews. So still to be able to provide the full experience to them, you know, even though they’re not that first time novice patient or customer is so important, and that’s where you know providing good product display areas, good sample areas, a good variety of product that’s well-merchandised so that these people can come in and reengage with the shop every single time.

Then there’s the third patients, and these are really the utilizers. These are the people who probably come in one to three times a month. This is an errand for them. They want to get in, get out and get on with the rest of their day. They will stay loyal to you, but they’re not there for the whole dog and pony show. They’ve got other things to do. They’ve got other places to go spend their money at, but they’re there and they’re committed and we need to also make sure that our show rooms are efficient enough to handle these people and to not inconvenience them on every single trip they make to the dispensary.

So it’s accommodating all three of those kind of patients, making sure that you can provide the level of high consultation one-on-one experience to the first time person, but you can also get the patients that need to get in and out of there in five to ten minutes and accommodate their needs as well too that you got to take into consideration when you plan out your entire dispensary. Everything about your process has to cater to those three types of people from the way you check patients in to the way you service them in your showroom to the way they pay and exit the shop.

Matthew: One of the themes of the show is that you know we’re kind of in a golden era for dispensary owners where everybody just wants, you know, cannabis so much and they’re so glad it’s legalized that they’re willing to pull up or put up with some suboptimal environments, let’s say back to that fraternity basement, but you’re helping dispensary owners now change that, transform that and if you’re a dispensary owner listening, it’s not some pie in the sky future. This is happening now, it’s transforming. There’s people like Megan figuring out how to make an absolutely joyous experience at a dispensary. So I encourage you to work with someone like Megan because you know things are changing quickly and you want to make sure that you have a business that people, you know, enjoy every single touch point as we’re talking about. So Megan in closing how can listeners learn more about your services?

Megan: The best way to learn more about my services is to either reach out to me directly or visit my website. My website is www.thrdesignstudio.com, as in The High Road Design Studio. My direct phone number which people can reach me at is (760) 641-4998 or you can reach me by email at megan@thrdesignstudio.com. And again my website which is also the end of my email address is www.thrdesignstudio.com.

Matthew: Thank you so much for being on CannaInsider today Megan we really appreciate it.

Megan: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure to talk with you.

Matthew: If you enjoyed the show today, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes. Every five star review helps us to bring the best guests to you. Learn more at www.cannainsider.com/itunes. What are the five disruptive trends that will shape the cannabis industry in the next five years? Find out with your free report at www.cannainsider.com/trends. Have a suggestion for an awesome guest on www.cannainsider.com, email us feedback at cannainsider.com. We would love to hear from you.

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