Has vaping created the new Wild West of retail design?

Is vaping the new Wild West of retail? Judging by the thousands of independent outlets popping up on high streets across the country, that seems a fair assessment.

Because like mobile phone and coffee shops before it, vaping is a fledgling category. The arrival of the first vaping devices coincided with the UK smoking ban just 11 years ago.

Nearly 3m Britons now vape, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) says the UK market is worth £1bn in sales, and estimates that there are 2,000 stores countrywide, with expansion set to continue.

Major chains include six-year-old Edinburgh-based Vaporized, which has 112 stores, and four-year-old Evapo, which plans to double its 41-strong chain in the next year. But much of the market is highly fragmented, some of it operated by ex-smokers with an evangelical approach to vaping.

Such expansion is good news for streets suffering from empty shops, perhaps, though some store owners are retail virgins and don’t seem to have fully embraced design yet – to put it politely.

“In a of lot cases, they’ve done design and build through a shop-fit company,” says Benny Lyon, creative director of design consultancy Lyon & Lyon. “No one is really owning the space.  The pervading aesthetics are tecchie and masculine, tapping into sub cultures.”

The Sheffield-based design group recently created a new brand and storeformat for Evapo (pictured), which is being rolled out across the chain founded by Andrej Kuttruf – who says vape shops have a reputation for being ‘dark and dingy’.

The comparison with skinny lattes and cellphones doesn’t end with the fact that this is a relatively new retail category. “Compared to traditional retailers, so much depends on the interaction between customer and staff, and the experience of trying different flavours and devices,” says Kuttruf, who was formerly a professional poker player.

Michelle Du-Prât, executive strategy director and co-founder of design consultancy Household, elaborates: “The vaping category is a rich tapestry for customer engagement on- and offline, when considering the mix of products to play with.” As well as the technicalities and aesthetics of vaping paraphernalia, she cites Vaprwear’s clothing range, which has hidden tubing designed for vaping. “It truly has the potential to be a sensory and hybrid experience of retail, leisure and entertainment,” she adds.   

Vape shop clientele broadly fall into three categories. There are the customers who just want to have the convenience of buying e-liquids; those who are new to it all and need a lot of hand-holding; and the more advanced user, who drops in regularly for a new flavour.

As, for many, it’s a new piece of kit that needs explaining, there’s plenty of opportunity for shop staff to interact with customers, because vaping can be a bit frightening for traditional tobacco smokers.

Some stores have a pharmacy-style counter at the back of the shop, “but that creates a barrier between staff and customers”, says Kuttruf. Instead, Lyon & Lyon created an open plan environment for Evapo, taking cues from the beauty sector and loose leaf tea chain T2, which started in Melbourne, Australia, in 1996.

Vapers shop via taste rather than brand, so in Evapo’s redesigned stores the liquids are arranged by flavour behind a multi-coloured vinyl, self-service wall. To sample one, customers “pick up a mouthpiece, stick it into a flavour tank and try it”, says Lyon. Then like lipsticks or mascaras, a product is delivered via a gravity-fed system.

The UKVIA “is very positive about the opportunities for the vaping sector and particularly for vaping stores”. But while the association is bullish about the potential for longevity and growth, others are less sanguine.

Du-Prât outlines the two schools of thought. “Some people think that the market will plateau as it is really only serving existing smokers switching for health benefits,” while others think that “vaping does have the potential to appeal to new types of tribes, with its presence and profile being helped along by access to vacant high street units and lower rents.”

Of course, not all the hyped new high street arrivals hang in there, as anyone who has had the dead skin chewed off their feet in a fish ‘pedicure’ can testify. Only time will tell whether these stores will disappear in a puff of apple and mint flavoured ‘smoke’. Or whether through expansion, mergers and acquisitions, a few well-branded chains will end up being the Starbucks, Costa and Caffe Nero of vaping.