We’ll go out on a limb and say since the recreational era began in the United States, the most visible leap forward in terms of professionalization has been in dispensaries. In less than a decade, the average pot shop has transformed from a pungent, utilitarian space with mason jars on the counter and chalkboard menus to bright, open-plan, high-street boutiques with attentive staff, carefully curated menus, and loyalty programs. It’s these dispensaries—even more so than evolving product brands—that have done the heavy lifting of enticing more and more Americans to disregard whatever Reefer Madness remnants remain and investigate how the plant may work for them. With lingering stigma continuing to act as a roadblock in newer markets, retailers arguably play the most important role in expanding the total addressable market for the entire industry.
Retail is where consumers interact with industry insiders directly and frequently, and the quality of this interaction, particularly the initial one, can determine whether a potential lifetime customer is gained or lost. If a customer feels intimidated by the staff, confused by the vernacular, or leaves with a product ill-suited for their needs, they may never set foot in any dispensary again. A great experience, on the other hand, can lead to a loyal, lifelong fan who enthusiastically tells their friends about the plant’s virtues.
The past couple years have seen an influx of highly experienced retail executives from more established sectors enter the industry. Enticed by the prospect of pioneering in a growing industry that seems married to brick-and-mortar retail, these execs have contributed to elevating the standards of the shopping experience previously unimagined. Store brands like Sunnyside and Beyond Hello have created gorgeous retail experiences with comparably well-executed ecommerce sites, introducing top-tier concepts to nascent markets in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Mature markets like California and Colorado continue to be engines of retail innovation, as their rightfully discerning customer base has come to expect improved service and excellent product selection at competitive prices.
Cannabis retail has not been spared the turbulence generated by outside forces over the past two years. Consumers are feeling the pinch of inflation, and the surge in demand experienced at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic has largely subsided. California’s retail market is in disarray as many dispensaries have slipped behind on their bills, and delivery services are struggling with high gasoline prices and a competitive market hamstrung by advertising restrictions. Further retail consolidation beckons, and some of the operators that haven’t adapted to new consumer shopping habits could face considerable headwinds in the coming months.
It’s moments like these when leaders emerge to chart the course forward. Here are a few of them.
National retail president, Cresco Labs Inc.
Stores: 149 (including recently acquired Columbia Care’s)
States: AZ, CA, CO, DE, FL, IL, MA, MD, MI, MO, NJ, NY, OH, PA, UT, VA, WV
Now that Cresco has acquired fellow multistate operator (MSO) Columbia Care and absorbed the latter’s national footprint of more than 100 stores, the MSO that led with wholesale is poised to be among the nation’s most expansive retailers. At the helm of the integrated outfit sits National Retail President Cory Rothschild. Formerly Cresco Labs’ senior vice president of marketing, Rothschild built and grew the company’s wholesale brand portfolio, taking sales from $43 million in 2018 to roughly $415 million in 2021.
In Sunnyside, Cresco built a retail concept to withstand shifts in consumer behavior and the entanglement of regulation in markets from coast to coast. The company invested heavily in its ecommerce website, and with more than 70 percent of transactions in Illinois starting online, it’s clear Cresco is building a retail presence to last. “With more stores and more scale, we get to bring our experience, assortment, ecommerce, and loyalty rewards to the majority of the U.S. adult population, so no matter where you are, you can always take a walk on the Sunnyside,” said Rothschild.
EVP of retail operations, Jushi Holdings Inc.
States: CA, IL, MA, NV, OH, PA, VA
While Jushi is one of the smaller publicly traded MSOs, it has earned a reputation for retail innovation and sleek dispensary design. Responsibility for the evolution of its flagship Beyond / Hello chain falls on Brendon Lynch, a seasoned national retail executive whose resume includes successful stints at Anthropologie, TOMS, David Yurman, and The Gap.
“No one has set the standard yet for what a modern, innovative, and emotionally connected cannabis retail experience should be,” said Lynch, Jushi’s EVP of retail operations. “Jushi is creating a next-level retail experience that is high-touch, educational, and engaging, and is undoubtedly changing the way cannabis customers approach retail stores and buy their products.”
CEO, StateHouse Holdings Inc.
Harborside’s acquisition of Urbn Leaf represented the union of two well-established California store brands, creating one of the state’s largest retail operators. The new company, StateHouse Holdings, tapped veteran executive Ed Schmults to lead the company into a new era. The Harvard MBA most recently served as chief operating officer at clothing retailer Patagonia; previously, he served as vice chairman of the board at outdoors recreation retailer REI and CEO at cannabis MSO Calyx Peak Group.
Schmults took the reins at a pivotal moment in California retail. Despite the considerable headwinds, he intends to continue the company’s legacy of leading by example. “I believe everyone at StateHouse feels the weight of expectations on us,” he said, adding the company will continue to lead with “the right collection of products from reliable suppliers, priced right and presented by a talented and educated staff.”
Head of retail, Cookies
States: AR, CA, CO, FL, MA,MI, MO, NV, OK, OR, WA
While Cookies is almost synonymous with top-shelf flower and apparel, the brand’s vast retail licensing strategy has unleashed a tremendous surge in visibility—not only in the U.S., but also abroad in countries including Canada, Israel, Spain, and the Netherlands.
Cookies’ Head of Retail Crystal Millican has been a major driving force behind the company’s strategy. Before joining Cookies, she was a consultant to Fortune 100 retail and business-to-business companies and an analyst at Google. “Our licensed retail model combined with the strength of our partnerships is one of the strategic decisions made early on at Cookies to support us in our blitzscaling growth efforts to meet global demand,” she said.
SVP of retail, TerrAscend
States: CA, MI, NJ, PA
Last year, TerrAscend increased its profile in a major way when it acquired Michigan dispensary chain Gage. The striking tangerine retail brand joins a stylish portfolio that also encompasses Cookies and Apothecarium locations dotted across the country, including the company’s latest New Jersey location next to the iconic Bada Bing Club featured in The Sopranos. TerrAscend claims the store is the first dispensary in the state to offer drive-through sales.
Overseeing the MSO’s retail expansion is SVP of Retail Chantelle Elsner, who employs more than twenty years of client- and customer-focused experience centered on development, expansion, and community relations. “Our strategic alliances with a recognizable national brand [Cookies] and two of the nation’s strongest community-driven retail brands [Apothecarium and Gage] allowed us to develop a model for national growth,” she said.
VP of retail operations, Curaleaf Holdings Inc.
States: AZ, CO, CT, FL, IL, MA, MD, ME, MI, ND, NJ, NV, NY, OH, OR, PA, UT, VT
Heavyweight MSO Curaleaf has the broadest retail footprint in the industry, with retail in eighteen states. Managing this veritable empire is Vice President of Retail Operations Dinesh Penugonda. He utilizes more than a decade of retail expertise driving growth and elevating customer experience for brands including Abercrombie & Fitch and Grassroots Cannabis.
By the end of the year, Curaleaf expects to have sixty operational dispensaries in Florida (it had fifty-one in August), and the company reported second-quarter retail revenue was up 11.4 percent over the same period in 2021, marking what the company’s called its eighteenth consecutive quarter of growth.
Interim co-CEO, president, and cofounder, Ascend Wellness Holdings Inc.
States: IL, NJ, MI, MA, OH, PA
Ascend Wellness Holdings (AWH) was in and out of the industry news this past year as it attempted to acquire MedMen’s New York operations. In August, the Ascend walked away from the litigious deal citing “uncertainty of when [New York’s] adult-use sales may begin, an unclear licensing process, and the lack of policing of the illicit market.”
With MedMen and New York off the table, Ascend is committed to surging forward elsewhere. Led by cofounder and President Frank Perullo, the company is focusing on New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, noting it sees “significant upside in New Jersey” especially.
Regarding New York, Perullo said, “AWH will continue to monitor the market closely and consider opportunities to enter the state via acquisitions that are significantly accretive.”
SVP of retail, Ayr Wellness Inc.
States: AZ, FL, MA, NV, NJ, PA
Ayr is one of the quieter publicly traded MSOs, building a giant retail footprint primarily on the East Coast. The company counts its forty-four-location Florida presence (formerly Liberty Health Sciences) and its eponymous Massachusetts locations as the jewels in its crown.
The company’s brick-and-mortar strategy is spearheaded by Senior Vice President of Retail Rhonda Kratz, who most recently led national retail teams at Acreage and served as chief operating officer for West Point Optical, a franchise startup with eighty-four locations nationally.
“In 2023, Ayr will provide a seamless digital experience to complement our in-store experience,” said Kratz. “Our new ecommerce platform supports four states, and we plan to expand it to the rest of our footprint by the end of the year. We already have seen promising early results with an uptick in online orders and overall site engagement across all of our states.”
EVP of marketing, Verano Holdings Corp.
States: AR, AZ, CT, FL, IL, MA, MD, MI, NJ, NV, OH, PA, WV
Chicago-based Verano has been building an enormous retail portfolio across a host of high-growth, limited-license states. Central to the rapid expansion is Executive Vice President of Marketing David Spreckman, who played an instrumental role in launching dozens of Verano-owned stores—sixteen in 2022 alone.
One of his flagship initiatives at Verano is the development of a mobile app that enables shoppers to order cannabis products and access rewards at Zen Leaf and MÜV dispensaries nationwide. “Convenience and accessibility are at the forefront of our retail experience,” said Spreckman. “Our omnichannel retail approach allows us to interact with our guests in the way that best fits their lifestyle, whether that be through in-store shopping, online ordering, or mobile application.”
EVP of operations, 4Front Ventures
States: CA, IL, MA, MI, WA
Although 4Front is best known in for its portfolio of edibles brands, the Arizona-based MSO gradually has been adding retail locations to its Mission dispensaries chain. Driving the company’s retail strategy is Executive Vice President of Operations Gabriel Mendoza, a thirty-year-old Chicagoan and one of the youngest Latin executives in the industry. He is responsible for shepherding retail projects into and through every stage of the business life cycle.
“We’re very intentional about what we do at 4Front, and some decisions take years to manifest,” he said. “That’s what 2023 will be for us. Expect to see us maximize our cultivation and retail footprint in Illinois, grow our market share in Massachusetts, and expand operations in California.”
Cofounder and CEO, Theory Wellness
States: MA, ME
One of the best-known and longest-standing names in the Northeast, Theory Wellness has been delivering compassionate care to medical and recreational patients in Massachusetts and Maine since 2016. Founded by CEO Brandon Pollock, the company built its reputation by focusing on small-batch, craft cannabis cultivated sustainably.
Next year could see a breakout point for the operator as it expands to adjacent markets, seeking to repeat the success it created in Massachusetts and Maine. “We’re actively pursuing and are in the process of bringing Theory into some of the emerging recreational cannabis markets on the East Coast,” said Pollock. “Our intent is for sustainable growth that preserves the core of what made us who we are through quality, innovation, and service.”
Cofounder, co-chairman, and co-CEO, Planet 13 Holdings Inc.
States: CA, NV
Arguably the industry’s most elaborate retail concept, Planet 13 was designed to drop jaws and spawn Las Vegas-scale revenue. The company’s flagship superstore adjacent to the Las Vegas Strip reportedly generates more than $100 million annually, encouraging the company to take its “spectacle-plus-scale” recipe to new states—first to California, where a “superstore” opened in 2021, and then to Florida and Illinois, where operations are expected to commence in 2023.
Cofounded by Larry Scheffler, a longtime Nevada resident and former city councilman in Vegas suburb Henderson, Planet 13 was conceived and executed by a team that understands the Sin City mindset like few other players in the market. “It’s about spectacle and experience,” said Scheffler. “That’s what people come to Vegas for.” He’s betting they’ll go to as many as six Florida locations and a Chicago-area social-equity store for the same reason.
Devon “Samba” Wheeler
Cofounder, ERBA Markets and The Woods
The Woods is undeniably one of Southern California’s most beautiful new dispensaries. In addition to serving as a landing spot for both tourists and locals, it also plays two other important roles: proving sustainable architectural and interior design can be simultaneously exotic, spectacular, and functional, and propping up Northern California’s outdoor cultivators who were foundational to the industry’s creation.
The operations mind behind The Woods and Los Angeles local chain ERBA is Devon “Samba” Wheeler, who sees both roles as imperative for the future of the industry as a whole. “We are where we are today in this industry because of the growers up north,” he said. “It’s their time and practice in combination with a natural environment that laid the foundation for the cannabis industry we know today.”
With soaring energy prices and increasing environmental challenges related to climate change, Wheeler’s perspective is far from mere homage. Sungrown flower can be more resource-efficient than its indoor-grown cousins, and Wheeler indicated embracing a reduce-reuse-recycle philosophy for dispensary construction is essential for the industry’s future.
Chief marketing officer, Airfield Supply Co.
With just one dispensary in its portfolio, Airfield Supply Co.—a San Jose, California, store owned by Gold Flora—is an outlier on this list. But the 20,000-square-foot operation is arguably among the most operationally sophisticated locations in the country, serving 1,300 customers per day in Silicon Valley. “We are obsessed with finding the perfect balance between immersive consumer experiences and efficient operations,” said Chief Marketing Officer Christopher Lane, who has spearheaded brand and marketing strategy since 2019.
The feather in the company’s cap might be its ecommerce website, which translates the dispensary shopping experience expertly and has opened novel merchandising and marketing opportunities for brands. A second, equally tech-enabled store is expected to open in affluent Redwood City, California, early next year.