Exceptional Retailer 66: Utopia



New York’s Utopia smoke shop set out to create a shopping experience that raised the bar, that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else — and it succeeded.

If you talk to the people at the Utopia smoke shop long enough, there’s a good chance you’ll hear this idea: They’re creating an experience that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world.

And it’s not lip service.

Utopia lives up to its name, as it has set out to reach smoke-shop perfection in New York. Its two locations are both 20,000 square-foot behemoths where the mission is to wow customers with an experience where they’d be hard-pressed to, well, you know the rest.

“Utopia wanted to raise the bar and break the mold as far as it goes for all of the cookie-cutter smoke shops up there creating an experience that you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world,” says Squire Krempa, Utopia’s buyer, director of sales and in-house artist. “From our display cases to our inventory and overall atmosphere you can come in and be sure that you will get an education paired with an amazing selection of products.”

Sure, that’s a mouthful — but it also kind of sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?

Utopia has two locations, one is in Hicksville, N.Y., about 30 miles east of Brooklyn. This one is considered the “mama” store as it has been in business since the late ’60s. The current ownership took over in the early ’90s.

Utopia’s second location is in Centereach, N.Y., about another 30 miles east. This shop has been around since the late ’80s, but it was moved and updated in 2016. The goal was to turn it into a boundary-pushing, bar-raising smoke shop like customers hadn’t seen before. And so far, the Utopia brain trust is thrilled with the results.

The centerpieces of the shop are Utopia’s giant walk-in display cases. They’re immaculate and a piece of marketing brilliance. These 17-feet-tall cases are built with high-end glass art in mind. They hold the shop’s most impressive pieces and allow customers a private viewing experience.

Those special display cases hold pieces from the likes of Banjo, LaceFace, Hoobs, Salt, Joe Peters, Sakibomb, Dellene Peralta, Phil Siegel and many more.

“We’ve been building with those artists just as long as we’ve been open,” Squire says.

The walk-in display cases give customers a 360-degree view of the glass. There are two pedestal displays. It’s enough to make you think you’re in a high-end jewelry store not a smoke shop — and that’s very much on purpose.

“As buyer and director of sales,” Squire says, “I strive to showcase the guys and girls pushing the boundaries of what glass can be sculpted into and what pipes can really be. We want to share that with the world and as a team have created an atmosphere where you can get a great glimpse in on the culture and play where you want to play.”

Squire describes Utopia’s shops as having a “Choose Your Own Adventure” thrill to them. You can come in and see a variety of things depending on your interests — from the high-end glass to a comprehensive selection of vape equipment and a vape bar, a CBD dispensary, concentrate accessories, streetwear, an adult boutique and much more.

He credits the leadership of general manager Brian Rose and store manager Lia Zucaro in helping to make Utopia’s overhaul a success.

“Some people have given us the compliment that we’re more crisp than an Apple store,” Squire says. “That we have the appeal of some of the best museums that they’ve been too. It transcends what it means to be a normal smoke shop.”

A visit to Utopia isn’t just about being wowed by the display cases, though. Education is also a big part of it. The shop recognizes that not everyone who walks through their doors — especially in 2018 — is an expert on all the technology and options available to customers.

“You’re not just coming in and we’re not just selling you something,” Squire says. “If you want an education, you can learn about the products we have on display. It’s not just about the item, it’s about sharing the education.”

That includes how to use vape equipment, how to properly use CBD and how to properly maintain a pipe or a rig.

“We’re not about three-minute parenting,” Squire says. “We see people through the whole way.”

That’s what creating great experiences is all about — making customers feel special and making them want to come back again.

“It’s an inclusive experience,” Squire adds. “Not an exclusive experience.”

And one that the folks at Utopia would say you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world. But you probably knew that by now.


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