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Special Feature: Ventura Capitalism

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BUILDING THE STORE

By 2013, Debbie and George Fox had been searching for a new store location in Ventura, CA, for four years.

It was past time, Debbie says, to move from a spot on the edge of downtown that they had outgrown, and which saw almost no pedestrian traffic. And they dreamed, too, of owning their own building.

“We’d been saving our money, and when our dream opportunity came up in May 2013, we were in escrow within a week,” Debbie Fox says. “For me it is hands-down the best location in Ventura.”

The property of their dreams is only three blocks from their previous location but it is prime Main Street real estate, situated between downtown’s only public parking structure and its only movie theater. In fact, Debbie wanted the new store to serve as a pedestrian corridor between the parking garage and the shops of Main Street.

The 1920s brick building — originally a meat market — backs up to an alley, where a long, narrow icehouse on the property was destined to be George’s new workshop. In all, there’s 3,400 square feet of space.

Still, the building needed a lot of work: a new façade and a complete gut job. It was the only one on the block that desperately needed restoration. “I didn’t really have a budget,” Debbie says. “I didn’t know how much it would cost. But we’d been saving and saving. In the end we put close to $1 million into everything and we were able to get a Small Business Administration loan.”

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Her dad is a structural engineer, which helped. “He’s 80 years old, and he and I crawled under the building — a space only 2 feet high at most — to check out everything with a light. It’s been a wonderful thing to do this with my dad. He has helped me built a fortress; it’s earthquake-safe.”

MEET THE DESIGNER

Initially, Debbie, a novice at building, drove herself crazy, she says, with a DIY approach to store design. Overcome with entrepreneurial zeal, she tried to lay out the interior on her own.

“I made a felt board and made the cases in different colors of felt,” she says. I took over the kitchen table for a month. But it just wasn’t working. I pulled my hair out over that. I never imagined the amount of detail you have to put into it, planning the interior, figuring out how to design offices, deciding what you’re are going to need in a kitchen and exactly how you’ll use all the space.”

Research and a recommendation led her to store designer Jesse Balaity of Sarasota, FL, who flew to Ventura within a week of their first phone conversation and worked with Debbie to come up with an initial design in September 2013.

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“We talked about the challenges,” Debbie says. “I looked at some of the things he designed. I pointed out things I liked. By this time I had a ton of pictures. So I showed him things I liked and things I didn’t like. That’s how I was able to communicate with him, through pictures. I couldn’t do it through words.”

Balaity’s goal was to update the Fox Fine Jewelry brand and introduce modern elements and materials while retaining its “Ventura feel.” In other words, he wanted to make the space appropriately luxurious for the bridal and custom business while still being in harmony with the casual streetscape of Ventura.

MAKING THE SPACE WORK

Balaity says in many ways it was the most complicated store project he had tackled. There were the structural challenges: They had to pull back a large part of the roof and gut the interior. They also spent a lot of money to sandblast paint off a brick wall.

But the most challenging aspect from a design standpoint involved putting each inch of the 2,000-square-foot showroom space to its best and most profitable use while balancing many priorities, including an art gallery, which is part of the business.

“Fox is very much a full service jeweler so we had to figure out how to appeal to the bridal market, the custom market, the Pandora customer, and how to accommodate an art gallery in a way that didn’t seem too busy,” Balaity says. “We went through many versions before coming up with the final design.”

Balaity suggested phasing out the giftware Fox had been carrying. “Debbie wanted the store to be all things to everyone,” Balaity says. “So I asked her, `What part of that scope of services and products do you do because it brings in money, what part do you do because it brings in people, and what part is just something you like?”

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Giftware was nice to have because she could showcase it in the front window as a colorful draw. The art gallery wasn’t the main source of revenue, but it drew a crowd for events. It’s the jewelry that generated the revenue and so creating enough space for jewelry needed to be the priority.

If the new store were designed correctly, Balaity says, the Foxes wouldn’t need to display colorful giftware in the front windows simply to grab attention.

Although they decided they couldn’t give up the floor space for a customer lounge or walled-off consultation rooms, selling areas include a diamond wall and an interactive custom design nook, where George can pull up stools and sit with a client to work on a CAD design. Additional seating is provided in the bridal area.

Balaity says the ceiling and floor design is every bit as important as the walls and cases in carving out defined spaces. The bridal area has a lower ceiling to create an intimate feeling. Most of the floor is a 24-inch tile but carpet toward the middle of the store helps with sound and to define areas. Balaity added mirrors to structural columns to avoid countertop clutter.

A PEDESTRIAN CORRIDOR

The other big design challenge was that Fox Fine Jewelry would have a front and back entrance, both open to the public. The Foxes would invite and encourage pedestrians to use their store as a corridor, but they also wanted those pedestrians to slow down, take a look around and come back later. The Foxes decided to make the most of their busy location, too, by staying open seven days a week — till 7 on weekdays and till 10 on Fridays and Saturdays.

Balaity created a strong linear ceiling element to make a direct visual connection between the two entrances, while he arranged the display areas to encourage a meandering path through the store.

“A variety of case types, heights and materials define different spaces, through which visitors observe the different types of jewelry and the rotating art gallery.”

The design team selected a palette of materials that signal display areas with complementary warm colors and contrasting textures. A combination of old materials, including exposed brick and cypress plans, contrasts with the modern glass, wood veneers and LED lighting. Balaity decided to use warm wood textures, and textured laminates that were inviting and upscale, but not intimidating.

The balance of old and new is most visible in the icehouse, repurposed as George’s expansive workshop. A modern back garden welcomes visitors from the alley and leads them past windows into the workshop, where they can see the building’s original exposed timbers while watching the work.

Because people would be walking through the store on their way to somewhere else, the plans left out a self-serve coffee and refreshment area, but the store is equipped with a full kitchen.

THE DRAMA IN THE DETAILS

Although Balaity got the project off the ground in a timely manner, and eased Debbie’s mind considerably, she was still floored by all the details involved.

“The back of my point of sale, for example, is tight; that’s all the room we have. So I had to figure out where I’m going to put every single thing from the scratch paper to the drawers to the job envelopes to the printer. It was an incredible patchwork kind of thing that took me a week in all, if I was to look at the number of hours I spent on it.”

While Debbie oversaw the building project and worked with Balaity, George ran the business.

The biggest glitch occurred when she tried to save money on the vault.

One local company gave her a quote of $28,000 rather than the $40,000 she expected.

“Before the vault was going in, we found out it was the wrong size,” Debbie recalls. “Turns out the vault I was getting was a used vault put together from three different vaults. Pretty much everything has been a surprise, but that was an ugly surprise. I’ve learned so much, including if it’s too good to be true, it probably is!”

“You also have to be hiring and training, if you’re going to a bigger place. I went from 2.5 to about five people, but I have had no time to interview, let alone train. I never worked this hard in my life.”

SINCE THE OPENING

Debbie began planning the grand opening early, advertising it with an email blast, and handing out pens and flashlights, too, stamped with the date.

Three grand opening events drew 800 people, including 600 for the three-hour party on June 26 that was open to the public and spilled out into the garden.

Debbie was delighted by the turnout. “In the past I have almost always been disappointed when I had events, and this time I was completely unprepared for as many as showed up.”

Debbie says the influx of people amazes her. “If you’re not right in the center of downtown, you may as well be anywhere,” she says. “Before, we were about two blocks off the walking area. Now, people just happen to be out and about and we are right in their path They wouldn’t have come to see the new store right away if they had to walk out of their way or drive. We’ve been discovered by people!”

The new cases of varying heights — made by case manufacturer JMJ Inc. of Hastings, MI — make viewing the jewelry much easier, which seems to contribute to a better closing ratio.

“The store looks welcoming,” Debbie says. “It’s classy and comfortable and people want to buy. We see a lot of people out on date night. It’s a different experience from what I’ve had in the past. We’re selling a lot of impulse purchases in the $100 to $300 range. We’re finding people are more comfortable spending money here, making big purchases. It’s a wonderful phenomenon.”

The store’s quality speaks for itself through the design.

“I was trying to be too many things to too many people,” Debbie says. “Jesse made us more of a high-end jewelry store by his design and there wasn’t room (or need) for other things.”

Balaity says he appreciated that Debbie and George understood the concept of building a shopping experience into the store design. He says it’s important for independents to pay as much attention to design details as national brands do, because it creates the type of shopping experience consumers are used to.

“I try to work with clients who get it that they have to create an experience, to get people’s endorphins going — and Debbie and George definitely got that.”

Debbie says although she’s used to being in control, she learned as the project progressed to trust Balaity’s judgment. “Jesse would say, ‘I think you should do this, and I’d go ‘Really? You’re kidding!’ I’d go and do all this research and 90 percent of the time, I’d end up agreeing with him,” she says. “So at the end of the project if he suggested something, I would just say ‘OK, Jesse!’”

TIMELINE

2013

May New property under contract after four years of searching.

Jul Closing on property with plans to open in April 2014. General contractor Peter Livingston on board.

Aug Debbie Fox begins blogging about the new site on the Fox Fine Jewelry website.

Sep Debbie Fox meets with store designer Jesse Balaity on site to develop store plan.

Dec Building is gutted and façade removed and replaced with construction barricade.

2014

Jan Tile is ordered to be installed in March. Case bids sent out.

Feb Balaity makes second trip to Ventura. Framing begins, cases ordered from JMJ and most finishes selected. Working on security, cameras, audio and back outdoor patio area.

Mar Subcontractor delays mean opening pushed from April to June. Additional staff hired and trained.

May Floors and cases installed. Pouring cement, building a fence, planting the patio area. Storefront nearly finished. Signage installed.

Jun Open June 18. Grand opening party June 26.

WHAT I LEARNED

BY DEBBIE FOX 

If you hire your own subs, check references. When I didn’t do all that background work for some of them, I was really sorry. The smoothness of the job had to do 100 percent with the quality of the subs.

Hire and train along the way, a bigger place. I hired the staff about two and a half months in advance, and I was so glad I did because they were able to hit the ground running.

I did the grand opening as a fundraiserwhich was genius because I was able to get a lot of assistance. The charity was the Family Reconnection Program, which helps get people off the streets, downtown. Charity is a win-win.

Consider your inventory needs.Consider your inventory needs. Even though I have double the space, I didn’t need twice as much merchandise. Now each jewelry display is its own vignette instead of being a whole bunch of merchandise in a case.

Stay incredibly involved, be incredibly detailed, and make a lot of lists.

I had been trying to host an art gala for 13 years. With the opening of the new building, the art gala organizers came to me. The location lends itself to much bigger groups and I can do more community events.

Hardly anyone does magnetic displays, and it’s a fortune to have them custom made. But you can make your own. You must have a metal substrate on the risers but you can use any old fixture and then you buy neodymium magnets in three different sizes. That means any off-the-shelf fixture can now be magnetic.

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