Growth in the extraction market and increasingly popular nonsmoking alternatives to Cannabis consumption have driven the vaporizer industry forward.
By Chad Lott, California
The world has seen a revolution in consumer behavior driven by the smartphone. Whether you’re an iPhone user, Android user, or some crusty curmudgeon with a rotary phone, your life is being touched by this ubiquitous technology.
Keeping pace with technological innovations coming online for Cannabis businesses will be key for anyone with a desire to be successful at scale. Computer-controlled greenhouses, advanced LED lighting systems, and accurate genetic testing are all set to revolutionize this growing industry. For consumers and retail-focused entrepreneurs, the advancements in vaporizer technology are quickly becoming one of the most significant.
Longtime smokers seeking healthier or stealthier methods of ingestion are adopting vaporizing in droves. New users, especially millennials, lacking artisanal stoner skills like joint rolling, bong operating, and apple-pipe carving are going straight to vaping as the devices become sexier and easier to operate. They’re here to stay, and they’re getting more popular every day.
VaporNation, one of the largest retailers of vaporizers in the world, has a very well-curated selection. Their marketing director, Greg Gaston, proudly claims, “We have the largest selection at the best prices. We’re trying to blaze a trail as one of the leaders in the industry.” The lion’s share of their sales is captured through wholesaling to vape shops, tobacco shops, and dispensaries. Direct online retail accounts for about 30% of their business.
Their marketing efforts include a series of well-produced videos on YouTube. Their humorous reviews and instructional content leverage the popularity of shareable media. YouTube is actually the fourth most popular search engine site and a major entry point for new users exploring Cannabis culture.
Gaston says, “We want to sell product, but at the same time we recognize there’s a lot of entry-level consumers out there, and we want to provide them with the best information to educate them on what vaporizers are available and how they work.”
ACCUVAPE’s director of operations, Hilary Dulany, also sees value in producing videos. Hers are designed to appeal to new users, especially women. Dulany’s background is in marketing, and running focus groups has revealed a lot about the rising number of female Cannabis users. When polled, it turns out most women are not super excited by trends like dabbing.
“They hate it,” Dulany says. “They think it’s dirty; they’re worried about lighting their hair on fire.” Using torches reminds many of smoking freebase. Stories of Richard Pryor setting himself on fire come to mind.
Women also appreciate sleek design. “We believe vaporizers should look cool, work great, be affordable, and not end up in the junk drawer,” Dulany says. Like many involved in the world of Cannabis, she has environmental concerns and hopes to keep as much plastic out of landfills as possible.
ACCUVAPE’s solid concentrate pen, the C.Stick, has been tested extensively. They sampled over 150 of them through Women Grow, a female Cannabis entrepreneur group, and took in all of their feedback before going to market with an improved device. They have not had a single C.Stick returned.
VaporNation enjoys an excellent reputation. “We do a lot of product testing and research,” Gaston says. “We definitely kick the tires and take things for a spin. You can cut a lot of corners in this industry, and there are a lot of companies out there making poor-quality knockoffs of good products.”
ACCUVAPE’s Dragon is a dry herb vaporizer and one of the most popular for private labeling. It’s also one of the most copied. Cheap Chinese knockoffs have flooded the market, stiffening competition. Dulany remains optimistic. “This is the market, this is the reality, but people are drawn to our quality,” she says.
Reflecting on Chinese products, she adds, “There are over 50 factories in one province in China, and all they do is make E-cigs and vaporizers. Anyone can go to China and order 500 devices and peddle them from the back of their trunk, but there are so many factors involved.”
Quality control is vital. “We test samples all the time because there are always changes in factory management that can cause major fluctuations in device reliability,” Dulany says. “You have to stay on top of it.”
Dulany and her partner, an engineer, test products developed by other parties and make improvements to create better consumer experiences. Their newest venture is a novel refillable cartridge, the vaporizer component that contains the ingestible material. Unlike many manufacturers, ACCUVAPE’s existing cartridges have a very low fail rate, somewhere in the 1% to 2% range. The new design addresses industrywide issues with leakage and air-chamber flow. Current refillable cartridges require a vacuum to work effectively. If you don’t pop the stopper back on within about 8 seconds, it can fail, ruining the device. The window is even shorter with runnier materials. The new cartridge will be able to handle a range of viscosities.
Many concentrate companies consider the cartridges completely disposable. “I don’t like promoting disposable products,” Dulany says. “I have a friend who sends me pictures of E-cig batteries she finds on the beach. It’s terrible.”
This type of innovation isn’t as enticing as, say, a new titanium handheld vaporizer design, but it’s the sort of thing that can dramatically shift an industry. Cannabis companies have a unique opportunity to come online with better solutions for the environment. If the industry seeks to appeal to the millennial demographic, green design will be a major differentiator. ACCUVAPE’s cartridges will be a good solution for new and established players in the concentrate industry hoping to draw a conscious consumer.
Though ACCUVAPE is probably a little more active on the development side, VaporNation is also heavily involved with designers. “We work with a lot of engineers who come to us and ask good questions about what we want to see and what users are responding to,” Gaston says.
There’s always room for something truly innovative and new, but reliability is perennially in style. “User ability and functionality are number one,” Gaston says. “We don’t carry any products that would give us a bad name. Second is marketing and brand exposure.”
Awareness of brand is very important because the vaporizer industry is extremely oversaturated. As legalization spreads, the same will hold true for Cannabis. “It’s important to understand how to get the word out about your product when there are 20 other guys doing the exact same thing,” Gaston says. He points to Kandypens as an example. Their device looks identical to several other brands, but they are crushing sales. Gaston has a lot of admiration for them. “As a marketing director, I have to really admire how much they’ve grown their brand in such a short time,” he says. “I enjoy working with them, and their products are fantastic.”
Gaston admits to having some personal favorites when it comes to vapes. “I really like the Arizer Air and the Ascent by Davinci,” he says. “Both have solid functionality and all the bells and whistles people like.” Gaston also likes the Vapir Rise. It’s a desktop vaporizer you can use with whips (basically a length of tube with a mouthpiece, sort of like a futuristic hookah) or a balloon bag. It’s essentially a more affordable option to the enduringly popular Volcano by Storz & Bickel. For at-home use, the Volcano is the reigning champion of most “best of” lists. It’s a forced-air vaporizer, which means there’s an internal fan that pushes the vapor upward. The Volcano captures the vapor in a balloon bag. Once inflated, it can be enjoyed and passed around much like a joint.
Looking to the Future
Industry trends indicate that the biggest market growth will be in portable vaporizers like the Pax. This vaporizer is, in many ways, the brand to chase. Engineered by Stanford graduates based in San Francisco, it was designed to be stylish, discreet, and appeal to tech-savvy users, just like the iPhone. Their newest version, the Pax 2, is an absolute joy to use.
Delta 9 is another company with an interesting product. Unlike the other companies mentioned, Delta 9 also produces high-quality Cannabis concentrates. The company took first place for “Best Vaporizer” for its Delta Vape at the 2015 High Times Cannabis Cup. The Delta Vape is an industrial-chic pen-style vaporizer with reloadable cartridges. It’s about as simple to operate as it gets and requires very little upkeep. For those looking for a new taste experience, Delta 9 offers seven different flavors of Cannabis, including Apple OG, Natural, Peach OG, Pineapple Express, Strawberry AK, Vanilla OG, and Wake & Bake.
With strong competition between what are all more-or-less good products, customer service is becoming a competitive advantage. “Making yourself available to your customer base is extremely important,” Gaston says. “Even if you’re the most seasoned vaporizer veteran, if you get a new product, you might have some questions about it.”
Dulany is also a strong believer in accessibility and customer service. If you call ACCUVAPE between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., you’ll get to speak to a real person, ready to answer any of your questions. “People are often shocked when I pick up,” Dulany says with a laugh. “Like they weren’t expecting to get a human.”
She believes it’s especially important to give new users the attention they need. The last thing you want is for a bunch of entry-level consumers having a bad experience and going out with a negative opinion of your brand. In the digital age, word of mouth travels fast, and reputations can be difficult to repair.
Concentrate companies might be inclined to skimp on the devices used to deliver their product, but this is dangerous, especially in a highly competitive market. If the device fails or leaks all over a customer’s clothing, you will take the blame, not the Alibaba.com factory this person ordered from.
“Our business model addresses all the major complaints customers have with most fly-by-night vaporizer companies,” Dulany says. “We have excellent customer service; we offer unprecedented warranties and unmatched quality.” ACCUVAPE’s warranty is, indeed, impressive. If one of their devices breaks, they’ll send you a new one. They aim to have a “no-hassles” operation.
Predicting which vaporizer will capture the biggest market share in the end is difficult. Think of cars. Everybody who drives has different needs, different budgets, and different lifestyle considerations. Some vape users need to be discreet, and some don’t. Some people like waxes and oils, while others prefer the natural flower. No matter what individual preferences are, as long as good functionality and quality are there, a demand will exist.
While some people may still be unwilling to invest in what’s essentially a very advanced bong due to social stigma, people try Cannabis for the first time every day. Many will start with a vaporizer. Increasingly, this will become a branded experience, and if those who manufacture and sell vaporizers want brand loyalty, they need to make and stock a range of top models. To quote the poet Maya Angelou, “…people will never forget how you made them feel.” And, if anything, this industry is about making people feel good.