Head shops come out of the shad­ows

As weed be­comes le­gal, new cus­tomers may be­gin fre­quent­ing once-stig­ma­tized stores

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BUSINESS - By Ab­del Jimenez

Head shops, once a busi­ness cater­ing to the hip­pie coun­ter­cul­ture of the 1960s and 1970s, are get­ting a sec­ond life.

The shops, which sell bongs, pipes and other smok­ing para­pher­na­lia, never re­ally went away. The in­dus­try has been evolv­ing qui­etly for decades as new forms of smok­ing — like va­p­ing — be­came pop­u­lar and women in­creas­ingly pa­tron­ized the shops, ex­perts say.

But with recre­ational mar­i­juana sales set to be­gin Jan. 1 in Illi­nois, lo­cal head shops — with names like Smoke De­pot and The Zen Den Glass and Vape — could start see­ing cus­tomers who never thought they’d cross the thresh­old of a para­pher­na­lia mer­chant.

Once stig­ma­tized, head shops are be­ing lib­er­ated, and “as recre­ational mar­i­juana ex­pands into more states, they are go­ing to do what­ever to com­pete,” said Sandy Ca­puto, direc­tor of mar­ket­ing and sales for Head­Quest, an Al­bu­querque, New Mex­i­cobased trade mag­a­zine.

Store own­ers are rush­ing to stock their shelves and pos­si­bly set aside space in their shops where cus­tomers can smoke, al­though lo­cal gov­ern­ments have been slow to roll out the reg­u­la­tions that would make it pos­si­ble.

In Chicago, Ald. Gil­bert Vil­le­gas, 36th, said he is work­ing with Mayor Lori Light­foot’s ad­min­is­tra­tion to craft a pro­posal that would per­mit on-site con­sump­tion of mar­i­juana at dis­pen­saries

and smoke shops.

Pete River, owner of The Zen Den Glass and Vape in River Grove, would like to cre­ate a des­ig­nated smok­ing area at his store, which he thinks would at­tract more cus­tomers. But it’s un­clear whether such a space would be al­lowed.

Law­mak­ers re­vised the state act that le­gal­ized mar­i­juana to al­low on-site con­sump­tion at dis­pen­saries and smoke shops, but the leg­is­la­tion gives the fi­nal say to mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties. It’s also up to lo­cal gov­ern­ments to es­tab­lish a per­mit­ting process.

River Grove hasn’t re­leased any de­tails yet, in­clud­ing zon­ing or­di­nances for dis­pen­saries, but vil­lage of­fi­cials are work­ing with the com­mu­nity and the board on a plan, Mayor David Guerin said.

In the mean­time, River al­ready has seen an uptick in new cus­tomers be­cause The Zen Den is near amed­i­cal mar­i­juana dis­pen­sary.

River, a glass­blower, makes most of the prod­ucts sold in the store. He also cre­ates cus­tom items for walk-in cus­tomers and other head shops in the state.

“In the past two months our sales have gone up,” said River, 35. “I’ve been com­plet­ing more cus­tom or­ders for clients.”

Not ev­ery lo­cal head shop ex­pects a surge in busi­ness af­ter Jan. 1.

Char­lie Ora­ham, one of four co-own­ers of Smoke De­pot in Chicago’s Buck­town neigh­bor­hood, said it will be busi­ness as usual.

“We should see growth the first weeks, but I don’t think it’s as big a deal as peo­ple think,” Ora­ham said. “Un­less you are next to a dis­pen­sary, I’d be shocked to see a 10% in­crease in prod­uct sales.”

Walk­ing into a head shop, first-time cus­tomers might be struck by the large num­ber of smok­ing prod­ucts avail­able for sale. The stores are typ­i­cally small and of­ten have lower light. They dis­play large pipes on the walls and clus­ters of smaller equip­ment on glass shelves.

From vape pens to prod­ucts con­tain­ing CBD, the com­pound ex­tracted from the cannabis plant that doesn’t get users high, head shops have adapted their of­fer­ings over the past decade in re­sponse to con­sumer trends.

But weed para­pher­na­lia is still a core of­fer­ing in the $12 bil­lion head shop in­dus­try, Ca­puto said.

Older users still grav­i­tate to pipes for smok­ing mar­i­juana. The younger gen­er­a­tion of­ten con­sumes mar­i­juana by va­p­ing and through a process called dab­bing, Ca­puto said.

Dab­bing in­volves in­hal­ing a heated cannabis con­cen­trate called wax.

Dean Ri­d­ley, the owner of Dope­boo.com, a Chicagob­ased on­line re­tailer of pipes, va­por­iz­ers and other mar­i­juana ac­ces­sories used for smok­ing, has no­ticed an uptick in the num­ber of fe­male cus­tomers.

“A cou­ple of years ago, about 65% of our cus­tomers were male. Now it’s al­most an even split. It’s kind of like on­line dat­ing,” Ri­d­ley said. “It used to be ta­boo, but now more women find it ac­cept­able and are get­ting into it.”

“Our cus­tomers value dis­creet ship­ping and pack­ag­ing, the same as it ap­plies to other items they pur­chase on­line,” Ri­d­ley said.

The com­pany stud­ied its clients and found that fe­male shop­pers pre­ferred va­por­iz­ers com­pared with other smok­ing prod­ucts. Va­por­iz­ers like vape pens ac­counted for 38% of sales in 2019, ac­cord­ing to Dope­boo.com re­search.

Themed pipes are an­other trend among users, Radley said.

“We have an Em­pire Glass­works that looks like (Pres­i­dent Don­ald) Trump. Themed pipes are pop­u­lar and a lit­tle more ex­pen­sive. The egg­plant is an­other ex­tremely pop­u­lar one. It’s bit of a fash­ion piece and a fash­ion state­ment. It’s also fun,” Ri­d­ley said.

ERIN HOOLEY/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Pete Rivers cre­ates a blown-glass pipe on Dec. 5 at his shop Zen Den Glass and Vape in River Grove.

ERIN HOOLEY/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE PHO­TOS

Ahead of recre­ational mar­i­juana sales, le­gal in 2020, some smoke shops are stock­ing up their shelves with prod­ucts. Pete Rivers has been cre­at­ing his own blown-glass pipes.

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