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A New Crop of Retailers All Want to Become 'the Sephora of CBD'

Three just-launched online marketplaces are seeking to cure the ails of modern life via the trendy, cannabis-derived ingredient.
Photo: Courtesy of Fleur Marché

Photo: Courtesy of Fleur Marché

On the one hand, CBD is nothing new. One of two cannabinoids in the cannabis plant that has been the subject of any recent substantial research (the other, THC, is the one that gets you high), it has been used to a somewhat limited degree since the 1940s. But the recent surge in the popularity of this non-psychoactive chemical compound found in cannabis owes to some studies suggesting that — in high-enough doses — it may help with anxiety, sleep and pain management. In modern times, the appeal for a natural solution to these common struggles is obvious. And if it feels like you've been hearing these three letters just about everywhere, brace yourself: Experts say we've only just begun.

The CBD industry is on the cusp of a boom; the race is on to become "the Sephora of CBD" — and multiple companies are vying to take on that role. A triad of just-launched marketplaces centered on the specific ingredient are entering the market, each with their own approaches to harnessing and marketing the powers of cannabis. But since the extract has heretofore been enshrouded by a lack of regulation, there are some shady products out there. 

Clarity is part of the business plan for these emerging e-commerce ventures. "We've only just started to see movement in this space," says Patricia Hong, partner in strategy and management consultant at A.T. Kearney's retail practice. Verena von Pfetten, founder of weed-centric publication Gossamer, agrees. "I think there's a huge need for [CBD-specific sites]," she says. "There is a lot of confusion around CBD. It is a very complex topic."

"It's a very fragmented market," Hong explains — and due to a lack of regulation and a proliferation of options, quality is often uncertain. To Hong, the potential of the online CBD marketplace is big — "they emerge to play a role of 'curator' for consumers eager to experiment but still unsure on how to navigate this new space." And it's becoming a very valuable one, estimated by some to reach a whopping $50 billion USD worldwide by 2020. Enter Standard Dose, Fleur Marché, Poplar (and others like White Label CBD and the OG, Miss Grass, which launched in January 2018 and paved the path for newer additions to the market), which seek to build trust with consumers.

But first, let's get our facts straight: What CBD actually does (or doesn't do) is the subject of lively debate. After all, many brands with marijuana leaves in their marketing create products that don't actually contain CBD, but rather hemp. "To summarize, hemp and marijuana are both cannabis," says Dr. Alex Capano, the chief science officer at Ananda Hemp. "Hemp is just defined as a cannabis plant with 0.3 percent THC or less."

To some, like Dr. Jordan Tishler, founder of Inhale MD, a clinic of Massachusetts medical marijuana doctors, it's all pretty much snake oil — at least in the doses present in popular products. "Consumers should not expect anything from CBD for sleep, anxiety or skin care. CBD, at the doses that are available, is an expensive placebo," he says.

To others, like Capano, it's rife with possibility. "Pain, sleep and mood are the top three reasons people use CBD oil," she explains, noting that "pain management is pretty well established in the literature." In fact, a "systematic review published in JAMA evaluated 28 clinical trials over 67 years and concluded that 'there is high-quality evidence' that 'cannabinoids are effective for marked pain relief,'" she explains. And, like many things people use to manage anxiety, sleep and pain, results can differ from person to person.

Photo: Courtesy of Fleur Marché

Photo: Courtesy of Fleur Marché

The prohibition of marijuana in 1937 — not to mention the cultural, political, racial and socio-economically charged nuances associated with it — set us back many years in researching the potential benefits of this medicinally-potent plant. But in December of 2018, congress passed the Farm Bill, which legalized hemp on a national scale, opening up the door to new potential and possibility. 

Along with the sudden proliferation and availability of hemp-based products has come rampant confusion. For Anthony Saniger, this very confusion served as the inspiration behind his company, Standard Dose, which opened its virtual doors on Jan. 24. "When I started researching CBD over a year ago, I noticed there was a lot of confusion and misconception," he explains. "There were brands making false, and often clearly exaggerated claims about CBD, and I saw an opportunity to be able to bring clarity and set a standard of trusted products in the industry."

And while the current popularity of CBD may seem to belong to the millennial and Gen Z set, in the early stages of his business development, Saniger had an important wakeup call about the appeal of this compound.

"Early in my research, I was talking to a friend in a cafe about the pain-relieving properties of CBD. On my way out, a woman in her early 80s said that she had overheard me and asked if CBD could help her with her arthritis," Saniger recalls. "At that point, I realized that this wasn't a millennial movement, but in fact something that could help everyone." This is key to Standard Dose's brand identity; while many CBD brands look like they were tailor-made to cater to a Glossier-obsessed clientele, Saniger sought to take a different tack with Standard Dose, positioning it as a brand that would appeal to people of all ages.

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Each of these new companies, rightfully, takes trustworthiness seriously. Standard Dose tested more than 250 brands prior to launching and requires brands to provide lab tests, completing their own third-party independent lab testing on top of the brand's.

For Beryl Solomon, founder of Poplar, an online CBD marketplace which soft-launched in November 2018, CBD's popularity makes sense in the context of a reaction to a modern lifestyle. "Busy is the new cool," she explains. "It's as if our society now equates social status to the number of meetings and appointments we have each day. And no one seems to be enjoying any of them." Bleak, for sure, but likely few would disagree. 

Poplar's "secret weapon," Soloman says, "is The Poplar Ten," a diverse team that includes doctors, lawyers, athletes and wellness experts, who help weigh in on product selection, in addition to reviewing and independently validating claims.

For a decidedly female-focused take on CBD, consumers can look to Fleur Marché, a site founded by two former Goop directors, which really shows (that's a compliment). Billed as a "cannabis apothecary," Fleur Marché sells highly-'grammable, French-girl-chic starter kits — Le Sleep, Le Beauty, and Le PMS. "We started Fleur Marché because we felt that cannabis was in desperate need of a rebrand," says co-founder Ashley Lewis. Those aforementioned starter kits come packaged in canvas pouches housed in PVC bags and tied with black ribbons — you won't find any stoner allusions here. 

To Lewis and her co-founder Meredith Schroeder, CBD presented a major wellness opportunity, but the product wasn't being recognized as such. "First, we needed to convince women to shed their long-held stigmas about who uses cannabis (stoners) and why (to get high), and instead introduce them to CBD, something that could help them sleep better, manage their anxiety, ease their aches and pains, and make their skin that much glowier," says Schroeder.

Photo: Courtesy of Fleur Marché

Photo: Courtesy of Fleur Marché

Like its peers, Fleur Marché employs a vetting system requiring potential brands to be extremely transparent about the sourcing for their CBD and how it's been tested. "We don't carry any brand that isn't willing to be completely transparent with us and share all of its third-party lab testing," Schroeder explained.

At the start of 2019, CBD is more accessible to shoppers than ever before.  Even Neiman Marcus (yes, Neiman Marcus) just launched an edited selection of products containing the compound, a move beauty buyer Kim D'Angelo says was inspired by a group of 20 millennials from the team who collaborated to "discover credible brands within the CBD beauty realm."

Whether you're online, or at your local mall — chances are, CBD is well within reach. 

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