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New Cannabis Dispensary Modeled on Customer-Friendly Supermarkets

Photos courtesy Joyleaf

Many cannabis retailing sites call themselves “dispensaries,” a pharmaceutical-tinged word that connects to their role in selling medical marijuana. But Joyleaf, in Roselle, N.J., very intentionally draws its design and merchandising inspiration from supermarkets rather than pharmacies. That’s hardly surprising considering the pedigree of its Founder, CEO and Executive Chairman, Jason Ackerman, who founded and served as CEO of Fresh Direct for over two decades.

Joyleaf, which opened in late 2023, is organized and merchandised by type of product rather than by brand: all the edibles, for example, are grouped together as a category, as they would be in a supermarket. Products are displayed out of their packaging (though behind glass), allowing customers to see exactly what they’re buying, supplemented with information cards providing product details. Additionally, the entire 2,500-square-foot selling space is designed to encourage browsing.

Ackerman shared how his experience and retailing philosophy informs Joyleaf’s upscale, female-friendly store.

Retail TouchPoints (RTP): What attracted you to cannabis retailing?

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Jason Ackerman: After I left Fresh Direct, I was looking for an industry and found cannabis to be extraordinarily close to food retailing. [They both start] with agriculture and farming, which is where the quality starts; then there’s the packaging and conversion processes that turn them into packaged goods. Then there’s [physical] retailing and home delivery, including the technology needed for those. While it’s a slightly different product [than in a supermarket], both require all the same processes to make a customer happy: the product quality, the price and the internet user experience. Also, it’s a heck of a lot easier to deliver cannabis than to deliver yogurt. You can’t get any more difficult than online grocery.

RTP: What’s behind the merchandising and store design decisions you’ve made for Joyleaf?

Ackerman: When I was researching this industry, one thing I noted was that cannabis consumers are different across the country. California is almost a cannabis culture; people have depth of knowledge. But on the East Coast, it’s still very stigmatized and “behind the scenes,” so there’s a lot less familiarity with the product. In newer markets you need a higher level of hand-holding and [customer] education.

[Despite this need], every dispensary I’ve seen on the East Coast was what I consider a pharmacy: stanchions, lines, counters, products on display — but just for branding purposes — but no real opportunity for shopping. Customers are hoping they can ask the right questions of the budtender while there’s someone behind them on line, so that doesn’t give them the ability to [take the time to] understand the products, particularly when you can’t read the packages.

In the Joyleaf store,if people need one-on-one consultations, they can stand side by side [with an associate] with no counter between them. All the products are laid out and organized, and we’ve extracted all the relevant info needed for comparative decision-making on well-laid-out cards. For instance, if they’re gummies, are they fast-acting or timed-release?

That experience — having a person on the floor with you, providing an opportunity to really immerse people in the education and care they need to make good, safe choices, required a completely different layout for the store. Joyleaf has 6,000 square feet total, with a selling space of approximately 2,500 square feet; we need that big back-of-house because we’re planning to do deliveries, so there will be a big pick-and-pack operation there.

RTP: Given this hands-on education and sales process, how important is it to have the right staff people at Joyleaf?

Ackerman: I’m a deep believer in the education and training of staff; I believe we invest more in training time and dollars than any other dispensary. We provide the training ourselves, because it’s a very specific way of selling. It’s broken down into all the components: how you’d approach a conversation with a customer; what their needs and experiences are; what they’re trying to accomplish — and then mapping them back to product choices.

What we look for in the people we hire are that they’re curious, and that they’re extroverts who are comfortable with people but who are not know-it-alls. When you’re in retail, what’s really critical is that you don’t personalize [a sale] to what you like and try to talk that up to a customer. If I have a young man in his 30s who is selling to a 75-year-old grandma, the critical thing is that he knows how to listen and understand the customer’s needs.

RTP: What were you going for with the look of the store?

Ackerman: We were trying to achieve a vibe of a store that wasn’t such a “dude” place with a very masculine feeling: 45% to 48% of cannabis consumption is by females, but dispensaries hadn’t been very female-friendly environments. We wanted an aesthetic that felt very inviting, comfortable and warm for the female population. It feels upscale, and it’s beautiful and comfortable for all. I worked with Tricarico Architecture and Design for nine months on the design and I drove them out of their mind, because I’m extraordinarily detail-oriented.

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