Marijuana Shops Are Trying to Look Like the Apple Store

CannibisOn a bustling stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard lined by vintage stores and eateries, the MedMen shop looks right at home.

Sunlight streams in through the store?s floor-to-ceiling windows. Inside, salespeople in bright red T-shirts greet shoppers. Merchandise is carefully arranged on sleek wooden tables lined with iPads.

It?s a retail scene reminiscent of an Apple store, but the high-tech gadgets on sale are vape pens.

After years of bullet-proof glass and burglar bars, marijuana shops are starting to get a makeover.

Cannabis entrepreneurs, borrowing from successful retailers such as Apple and Whole Foods, are opening dispensaries with natural light, spacious displays and open-floor plans. With weed now legal for recreational use in California and seven other states, such amenities could attract an anticipated glut of new customers who are less familiar with cannabis and may be put off by the industry?s generally dingy shopping experience.

There is an ?upscale revolution in cannabis retailing,? said Troy Dayton, chief executive of Arcview Group, a marijuana research and investment firm. ?It now makes sense to invest in your property and make it awesome for the long haul.?

As more states ease restrictions on marijuana for medical and recreational use, pot is losing its stigma ? bringing new consumers into a legal market forecast to grow to $50 billion in 2026 from $6 billion last year, according to a report from Cowen & Co.

The biggest source of potential growth is older customers who have disposable income but are more reluctant to patronize the types of shops that have traditionally sold marijuana, said Vivien Azer, a managing director at Cowen who analyzes the cannabis industry.

From 2011 to 2015, marijuana users 26 years old and up grew by more than 30 percent, while those ages 18 to 25 climbed only about 4 percent (young people still represent the bulk of those who admit to using pot), Azer said.

?The guy ripping bong hits every day is not buying higher-end,? Azer said. ?It is women and wealthier consumers that under-index for cannabis use? ? representing a huge potential market ripe for a retail experience, she said, that is less ?drug dealer? and more ?legitimate.?

MedMen co-founder and Chief Executive Adam Bierman has a nickname for what he considers the biggest untapped demographic: ?the Chardonnay mom.? These are well-to-do customers who don?t currently use pot, but might be introduced to it by friends at a party or peek in while walking past an attractive boutique.

?They see this store and say, ?Oh, I?ll try those breath mints,? Bierman said. ?They start becoming someone who is substituting marijuana for alcohol or something else.?

The company also manages growing and manufacturing operations, including a dispensary and cultivation facility in Los Angeles? Sun Valley neighborhood. Cultivation facilities are in the works outside Reno, Nev., in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., and in Utica, N.Y. (MedMen is managing four dispensaries in New York, including one in Manhattan.) But key to its success is an in-store experience that offers the same operational savvy and attention to detail common in more ?vanilla businesses,? Bierman said.

?There is no statute that requires tinted windows or bars ? it?s because of that feeling that this is an illicit product,? Bierman said.

Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Andrew Modlin said he looked to retailers such as Apple and even restaurants for ideas.

Instead of queuing up, shoppers are encouraged to browse the store on their own. Against one wall, refrigerators contain edibles such as marijuana-infused lemon bars. On the other, open shelves and hooks hold a variety of products, including cannabis patches for pets.

On custom-built wooden tables, cannabis strains are displayed in clear circular containers ? dubbed ?bud pods? ? with built-in magnifying glasses allowing for closer inspection. By pulling a small tab. shoppers can take a sniff (Modlin said sanitation is his pet peeve at old-school dispensaries, where customers shove their hands into open jars of product). Each pod is stealthily secured by a cable, like the laptops at an Apple store.

The processing room, where gloved employees prepare orders from shelves of stainless steel bowls, is sheathed in clear glass similar to the open kitchens at trendy restaurants.

?I have been in so many dispensaries, and you go into the back and there are bags of product on the floor and a used bong right next to it,? Modlin said. ?That?s not the environment we want to create.?

Retail analysts said weed entrepreneurs are embracing a strategy familiar to anyone who has spent $5 for a cup of coffee: it?s easy to persuade shoppers to spend more at a store with upscale ambiance. Creating an attractive retail experience will become increasingly vital as marijuana prices drop in coming years as more growers jump into the market.

?I?m more inclined to go to a store that looks better,? said Ron Friedman, a retail expert at Marcum in Los Angeles. ?It?s more than just going in to buy a product, it?s creating an environment where somebody enjoys just being in the store.?