How the Vape Shops Won

It’s a rough time for retail stores in America. How can there be so many vape shops?

Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.


Saved Stories

The vape shops seem to be multiplying. You’ve almost certainly noticed them, if only because most are difficult to miss, decked as they tend to be in rainbow colors and neon signs. You might have emerged from pandemic isolation to find a new one next to your local smoothie shop, or maybe one has sprouted in a long-vacant storefront you always wished would turn into something you actually need.

The national trend line is strong: Since 2018, the number of vape shops in the country has increased by an average of almost 20 percent annually, according to one estimate. The retail vape market isn’t growing by leaps and bounds everywhere, says Timothy Donahue, the managing editor of Vapor Voice, an industry trade and advocacy publication. In Alabama, for example, a law restricting where vape shops can be located has made it hard to open new ones. But such laws are the exception instead of the rule. For now, vape shops appear to be a winning business model in most places. Their neon signs glow across cities, suburbs, exurbs, and rural small towns alike, even when many other kinds of retail stores are struggling to stay afloat in the same places.

Enjoy a year of unlimited access to The Atlantic—including every story on our site and app, subscriber newsletters, and more.

But what exactly is the business model? Colloquially, vape shop is a catchall term that can be applied to a cohort of similar retailers: those that sell only vaporizers and their related nicotine or cannabis products; those that lead with hemp-derived products like CBD in forms vapeable and non; and those that might have been called “smoke shops” a decade ago, which stock things such as loose-leaf tobacco and hookah supplies in addition to new lines of vapes, oils, and gummies. In places where recreational cannabis sales are legal, vape shop is a term that might be used to describe some actual licensed dispensaries, though mainly those are just called, well, dispensaries. Vape shops are, first and foremost, specialty stores, even though they all seem to specialize in something slightly different.

Never miss a story. Start your free trial.

Uncompromising quality. Enduring impact.

Your support ensures a bright future for independent journalism.

Already have an account? Sign in