Only a handful of cannabis retailers in the United States enjoy what could be considered national recognition. The select few have achieved their status through a mixture of aggressive franchising (Cookies), major marketing spend (MedMen, Eaze) or, in the case of Planet 13, by creating something so over the top it became a social media phenomenon.
Planet 13’s 112,000-square-foot entertainment complex just off the Las Vegas Strip catapulted the retail brand into the national conversation when the company had but one location, thanks to the stoner portion of Vegas’s 40 million annual tourists spreading the word about the “world’s biggest dispensary. So when the parent company announced in early 2021 its second store would open in Santa Ana, a city in California’s conservative Orange County (OC), observers couldn’t help wondering whether the same blockbuster, tourist-friendly retail concept would work in a place with a fixed local audience.
Planet 13 Vice President of Sales and Marketing David Farris said the company knew from the outset it needed to create an experience that would keep regulars coming back. That meant buttressing the brand’s penchant for novelty and spectacle with a strategy focused on retention.
“The locals don’t go away. They’re here to stay,” said Farris, who joined Planet 13 six years ago as an intern and worked his way up. “A big part of the initiative in Santa Ana was to focus on local customers, the people who are shopping every week, and really build up that base. Focusing on those customers helped us a lot when we first opened the store.”
Expanding into a different kind of market meant boiling down the brand into a series of pillars that could delight and inspire time and again, regardless of the nuances in the specific communities a store serves.
While some multi-location dispensary brands prioritize symmetry and familiarity across every location, the Planet 13 team wants each store to lead with spectacle, scale, and tech integrations while reflecting the community that walks through the door daily.
“We wanted to create and cultivate unique experiences with variety from location to location,” said Farris. “We don’t want you to feel like you went to the OC store, so now there’s no reason for you to go to the Vegas store.”
Like the Vegas location, Planet 13 OC greets its guests with a giant red planet sculpture out front, resembling nothing so much as an enormous dropped pushpin. “Our big red ball water feature is a beacon of Planet 13,” Farris said. “Lots of people take photos in front of it, and it has become a really big part of our destination.”
Once inside, guests engage with another pair of activations as they wait for their identification to be checked. Framing the entrance to the shop floor is an eighty-foot-long, floor-to-ceiling-and-beyond LED screen radiating a fuschia Pacific sunset, complete with digital waves (and scuttling crabs) ebbing out onto the floor. Just beyond sits a Volkswagen camper van—an enduring emblem of California surf culture—door ajar, beckoning customers to snap selfies as a smoke machine hotboxes the vehicle from the inside.
Farris identified the details as examples of Planet 13’s integration of local character into retail design, helping the dispensary blend into the fabric of the community without “looking corny.” They also exemplify the user-generated content trend becoming increasingly common among forward-thinking dispensaries. By encouraging customers to take photos in front of sculptures and murals, stores can leverage their customers’ social-media clout to broadcast their brand.
Tech-forward art installations, in particular, are hallmarks of Planet 13. Some pieces are the first of their kind in the country. “We’re really focused on developing the kind of experiences customers can truly interact with,” said Farris.
As consumers walk through the digital turnstyles and onto the shop floor, they are greeted by another pair of visual feasts: A colossal red octopus with sprawling tentacles looms over the space, while a bevy of brightly colored umbrellas perches just below the ceiling.
Fifty-two numbered cashstands frame the room. Once customers have checked in, they are free to roam the open floor, examining products before receiving a text with a station number where they’ll meet their assigned budtender. The hybrid of a classic counter system and the more modern open floor plan is intended to give customers the best of both worlds by coupling casual browsing with discreet, one-on-one interaction.
“We realized people gravitate toward lines but don’t enjoy standing in them,” said Farris. “What we’ve been able to create is an environment where you browse and look at products on the floor prior to meeting with your budtender.
“A lot of other stores don’t care about giving the customer a quality experience; it’s just churn and burn,” he continued. “But we feel making the shopping experience safer and more comfortable, allowing them to take their time and purchase what they want, is ultimately much more beneficial to our business.”
The inventory is displayed in four rows of classic glass jewelry cabinets, organizing brands, products, and form factors by their popularity in the store. Another hallmark of the Planet 13 OC dispensary is the store-within-a-store merchandising feature, in which major brands like STIIIZY and Select rent segments of the store and build presentations with video screens, merch, and a dedicated budtender who specializes in the brand’s products.
“We make sure our staff is extra-trained on those specific products so they can focus on educating customers and answering questions about those specific brands,” said Farris. “It’s just an extra layer of communication and marketing throughout the facility.”
Launching the OC store was an important step in Planet 13’s bid to become a national dispensary chain, as opposed to a single-location behemoth. Not only did the brand test its mettle in a highly competitive market with many stalwart legacy stores, but Planet 13 also found much-needed flexibility in its presentation and execution to bring the concept into markets with fixed audiences.
With more stores expected to open in Chicago and Miami this year, Planet 13’s aspirations to national stardom inevitably will test the enduring appeal of spectacle as a draw and the company’s ability to attract and retain locals with the things that matter to them: great weed at good prices.