Boutique cannabis: 'Not your older brother's weed shop'
By Cheri Carlson
Customers on a clean, airy Studio City sales floor browse shelves lined with cannabis-infused lotions, bath salts, protein bars, pet treatments and, of course, a variety of flowers.
A uniformed 30-something staffer at Buds & Roses cleaned a smudge from the glass, while another talked a customer through the how-to’s of vaping. Outside, a valet fetched cars.
“It’s definitely not your big brother’s weed shop anymore,” said Cynthia Erland, a medical marijuana patient and cannabis marketing consultant. “In the last two to three years, the cannabis retail experience has become more high-end.”
About 10 years ago, the Buds & Roses medical marijuana dispensary moved into the Los Angeles neighborhood, where trendy bakeries and popular boutiques line a busy strip of Ventura Boulevard.
“This is one of the top dispensaries in Los Angeles,” said Erland, a former senior vice president of marketing for American Apparel. “It really caters to that affluent demographic, 25 to 55 and on."
With state licenses and regulations just months away, California’s marijuana dispensaries and growers have started coming out of the shadows of a gray market, developing brands, partnering with celebrities and appealing to a boutique crowd.
“I think as long as you have the right products, and the right experience, you’re going to get a lot more of those mainstream people,” said Aaron Justis, Buds & Roses president.
But the married father of two said he also chose to act like a regulated dispensary despite the lack of regulations at the time, from charging sales tax to requiring nutrition labels on edibles.
In return, he attracted customers who want those kinds of things.
"When I first came here, I made a decision to just be proud of what I do, to put myself out there, to do everything transparently," he said.
California legalized medical marijuana sales in the mid-1990s, though cities and counties could impose their own rules, including whether to allow dispensaries.
Then last year, voters approved Proposition 64, legalizing recreational use of marijuana, and the state expects to roll out regulations in both markets in January.
That legitimacy gives companies incentive to invest, Justis said.
"Even us, we've been here 10 years, and we have a great business, but the truth is we have barely even started," he said.
Billion-dollar industry, tourism boon
The cannabis market pulls in billions a year and legalization in California might bring in more money and more out-of-state tourists, according to a study by the UC Agricultural Issues Center.
But largely, the move to legalization really brings an existing multibillion-dollar industry out into the open, said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association.
That means growers and businesses can start making a name for themselves and developing a following out in the open, he said.
"In the unregulated sort of gray market or worse, the prohibition black market of decades past, the way you would succeed in this business was by keeping a low profile," Allen said. "Things like brand development, putting your name on a product was almost unheard of, so it was practically impossible to track value through the supply chain."
A farmer would spend all year growing a high-end product, only to have it end up in a black plastic bag in the back of someone’s car and disappear, he said.
Customers also will have more sway, voting with their dollars, so to speak, Allen said. "If they want an organic, pesticide-free product, they’ll be able to pay for that."
The ‘Whole Foods' crowd
MedMen took over management of a West Hollywood dispensary in late 2015 and reopened the space last April after a renovation.
The plan was to appeal to a crowd more in line with Whole Foods or GNC, said company spokesman Daniel Yi.
The store has no waiting areas or tinted windows, which is allowed in that city. People walk into an open space that could double as a computer salesroom or boutique with its wood floors and high ceilings.
Tablets stocked with product information sit on long, wood display tables next to "bud cases," small, round containers with a nose-sized spot to slide open for a quick smell of the flower inside.
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Their demographic? Professionals, the so-called Chardonnay moms and a sort of cross section of the West Hollywood community, Yi said.
In late June, a revamped dispensary in Orange County reopened under MedMen management. It's bigger in terms of showroom space, but has the same concept, the same wood table, the same iPads, Yi said.
"Our vision is to have this MedMen brand, these concepts, in pretty much every state that has legalized marijuana," he said.
'Next generation of retail'
At Buds & Roses, a waiting area with hardwood floors and cushioned seating fills a corner next to a small retail space for branded clothing and bags.
From there, clients are led through a door and into the showroom, where counters of reclaimed wood and glass hold a host of products, including “vegan” flowers, cultivated in-house using what Justis described as organic, plant-based nutrients.
"When we started out, it was mainly just the cannabis flowers that we were selling and then a couple of cookies and brownies," Justis said.
Now, that has dropped from 70 percent to close to 50 percent of sales, as other products became more popular.
Alongside flowers, the shop sells brands of specialty juices, coffee, tea, paleo bars, lotions, and a whoopie (goldberg) & maya line body balm and lavender bath soak.
The average client skews older, including seniors who have never smoked in their lives, said budtender Tian Scherer, 31, of Sherman Oaks.
"More often than not, they are a little bit overwhelmed," Scherer said of those walking in for the first time.
"That's totally natural,” she said. “There are so many products on the market, so they rely on us to kind of guide them through it."
In Los Angeles, Erland said she has found a new niche in the cannabis industry after 20-plus years in apparel retail.
The past few years have been rough for apparel, but by comparison, cannabis retail has exploded, she said.
“It’s not just about smoking weed anymore – or flower, as we now call it," said Erland, who launched ErlandCreative as a cannabis marketing firm last October. "It’s really about the products now."
That includes products focused on micro-dosing, she said.
The cannabis market was swamped with everything from decadent gourmet chocolates and mints to spa services and stick-on patches for sore muscles. People can get massages or take a cooking class with a gourmet chef using cannabis-infused food.
Erland compared the experience of a high-end cannabis boutique to a trip to a beautiful beauty shop or to Barneys.
“It’s really like Silicon Valley in the mid- to late-90s. The momentum is crazy,” she said. "It really is the next generation of retail.”