Jesse Balaity counsels business owners about getting customers through the door.

By Jeff Widmer / Photography by Lori Sax

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Many brick-and-mortar stores struggle in the Internet age, and new shopping centers present challenges to established retailers. Enter Jesse Balaity, owner of Balaity Property Enhancement in Sarasota. With a master’s in architecture and a decade of experience, he designs and manages projects in retail, mixed-use and hospitality. In Sarasota, he has consulted on the new Diamond Vault building and Touch of Africa on St. Armands Circle. His newest project, Carats Fine Jewelry & Watches on Bay Road, opens soon.

 

What does your company do?

I guide clients in the design and implementation of effective commercial spaces, whether for the owner, landlord or tenant. My passion is working with independently owned businesses that need extra help in competing in a marketplace dominated by national brands.

 

Your vision is more than a fresh coat of paint. describe your approach.

While it’s different for every project, I encourage owners to understand that the experience is as important as the products they’re selling. If you are competing on price, you’re fighting a losing battle. Let’s figure out how to create an experience that matches the product with the target demographic.

 

How important is design in retail today?

For certain segments of the market it is paramount. Entire categories of stores are no longer relevant because of the combined option of big-box retail and the Internet. That forces retailers to develop relationships with their customers. Touch of Africa does that by mixing furnishings with travel services.

 

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What are the big trends?

I see two. National retailers are crafting their prototype stores around individual locations. For example, national restaurant chains are partnering with local farmers or using local artwork to give that we’re-a-part-of-your-community feeling. The other trend is an economic response. Retailers are bringing a level of indulgent experience from higher-end lines to more affordable lines. CB2 and G by Guess are good examples.

 

How are retailers adapting to market changes?

The trend is to position local labels as alternatives to national brands on the same level. It lets retailers have something that nobody else has without sacrificing the price point. A local example is Shore on St. Armands Circle, a retail store geared toward high-end surfing apparel.

 

Which retailers have the best designs?

I have a few favorites—CB2, Crate and Barrel’s less expensive line, and G by Guess. The latter has taken a middle- to high-end price point and created a more affordable line without sacrificing the buying experience. Locally, the Diamond Vault has chosen to seek out smaller jewelry designers, rather than becoming a showplace for things people can buy elsewhere.

 

Which retailers have you worked for in Sarasota-Manatee?

The owner of American Super Pawn Stores liked the way jewelry is displayed in the Diamond Vault and wanted help in opening a traditional jewelry store that also includes collateral lending—it’s when you get a loan on your jewelry. So we are opening Carats. The guiding principle is, respect your customer. Create a more comfortable atmosphere with some privacy for discussing a transaction. The design breaks down the preconceived notions of the pawn business.

 

What things must retailers absolutely do to succeed?

Independent retailers need to realize that while they may make the best cup of coffee, they don’t know how to make a coffee shop. Too many restaurant and retail operators assume that if they make a good product, the customers will come, and that’s not always the case. They should also realize that, if they own a clothing store and Gap locates right next door, yes, the Gap is competition, but it’s also their best advertising. Local merchants forget that people who come from out of town don’t recognize the local names. But they will come out for the national brands.

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University Town Centre may take anchor stores from Westfield Southgate. What are the best options for Southgate?

I’m working on that issue for a mall in a different city. Tenants there have a clause in their lease that if the anchors leave, those tenants can leave or seek lease reimbursement or a reduction of rates. That can lead to dead malls. It’s important for the mall to have a strategy, and part of that means getting buy-in from the remaining tenants. Entertainment and restaurants can infill these spaces.

 

How do you demonstrate ROI to clients?

Merchants do traffic studies, but in the end, much of it is anecdotal. Store owners can measure the volume of sales but it’s hard to point to design and say it contributed to a specific sale. Owners should ask, “When I walk into the finished store, does it have the presence of a national store, and what did I have to spend to get here?”

 

Where are some of your favorite places to shop?

I like stores that sell a product you can’t find anywhere else. And I like historical shopping districts like Magazine Street in New Orleans, Lincoln Road in Miami and Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. I’m looking more at the design of the place than the objects they sell.

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