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Rani (Somayaji) and Dennis Salemi, left, have filled an empty space in the Rite Aid plaza. They recently opened Research and Design, a store offering an assortment of gift and fashion items - as modeled by Jennifer Campbell, Olivia Gorman and Sarina Deacon.
Rani (Somayaji) and Dennis Salemi, left, have filled an empty space in the Rite Aid plaza. They recently opened Research and Design, a store offering an assortment of gift and fashion items - as modeled by Jennifer Campbell, Olivia Gorman and Sarina Deacon.

Research and Design brings life to vacant Lewiston space

by jmaloni
Fri, Oct 15th 2021 11:00 am

RD sets sight on Lewiston; prides itself on customer satisfaction

By Joshua Maloni

GM/Managing Editor

Who knew a boring blank space could be turned into such a bountiful beauty?

Lewiston residents Rani (Somayaji) and Dennis Salemi recently opened Research and Design inside the former HSBC Bank on Center Street. The interior redesign is, quite frankly, shocking, as the space that once housed teller windows, cubicles and a conference room now boasts a mural; an open retail design with designer clothing, shoes and jewelry; and a children’s room brimming with toys and Lewiston-branded shirts.

“That is a good thing about the way we work together, we can see it together and then we're like, ‘Aha, we get it.’ It clicks, and then we can do it,” she said.

He added, “I also think it goes back to who we are conceptually – Research and Design. We've seen similar things in other parts of the country, in other parts of the world, where people take a unique space, and they transform it into something. We're inspired by some of these things.”

Research and Design – or RD, as it’s known – is the result of two decades of experience in the retail and fashion industries. The owners’ first location opened almost a decade ago in Orchard Park. Lewiston’s larger version made its debut on Oct. 1, after about four months of remodeling.

“We restored a barn that was built in the late-1800s,” Rani said. “It was a ski shop and then a bunch of other things over time. A quilt shop. He worked there in high school.”

“It was called The Ski Rack, and it was kind of like the place for ski equipment back in those days,” Dennis said. “I loved working there when I was a kid. That's what kind of drew us to that building.”

“So, we brought it back to life, and put clothing, gifts, candles – all that sort of thing in there – in 2012. And then we did a couple sunshine + bluebirds stores, which are like more gift and accessory, less clothing. Similar product mix, smaller footprint – our sunshine + bluebirds store. More gift-oriented and less apparel.”

Rani said, “Lewiston has always been on our mind, because I grew up here. He grew up in the Southtowns; we did Orchard Park first, and then kind of knew we would circle back to this.”

Dennis added, “Rani and I both were planning on different career paths, and we met each other in retail, and ended up moving up in the company we worked for. We ended up being president and CEO of a retail company in the Northtowns. We had a very nice run there.”

The RD concept is simple: While there are many places to shop, “We both love to travel and then go to all the trade shows and scout out all the fashion, upcoming gifts and things, all the trends that are happening,” Rani said. “And a lot of people, what they like about us, is when they buy something, they usually get a compliment or, ‘Where'd you get that?’ And you get word-of-mouth referral.

“We edit the best of the best. We do our research, and then design either your wardrobe, your footwear wardrobe, your baby gifts – you know, the whole situation. And then if we expand down the road, it could be into other categories.

“And I'm Rani – R – and he's Dennis – D – so, RD.”

Dennis added, “Everybody, for 15 years while we built this business, knew Rani and Dennis. So, I'm like, we kind of should just go with it – be Research and Design – but kind of like put it out there that we're Rani and Dennis – this is us.”

Once customers get past the aesthetic jolt, they’ll find “It's a community store,” Rani said. “So, you might get a grandmother who comes in and she's buying for the babies, and then she says, ‘And I'm going to send my daughter, and my granddaughter is going to come with her.’ Especially around the holidays, you have generational shopping.

“Over time, because we have so much experience, we edit the product mix to cater to everyone. We kind of get a groove of what people are looking for – and especially like in communities for gifting. A lot of people come for gifts. Many people come for fashion clothes, but most people come for gifts. Husbands, around the holidays, they'll just hold up their phone, look on Facebook or Instagram, ‘I'll take this.’ ”

Dennis said, “We've been at it for 25 years. We have a good idea of what people want.”

Jewelry, clothing, gifts and even a mural (courtesy of artist Jocelyn Conaway) can be seen inside the new Research and Design store in Lewiston.

He explained, “A lot of people will buy things online, but people don’t generally buy gifts online. When they buy gifts for people, they go somewhere to get them. So, it's good way to get people into the store.”

“The thing I noticed from the beginning with our business is people coming in to buy gifts for somebody and getting distracted and buying themselves something,” he said. “There's been times where I've seen people come in, they’re like, ‘I need a gift.’ They look around, they buy something, they leave. And they come back and they're like, ‘Oh, I forgot about you.’ ”

Popular brands include Sorel, Nordic Beach, townie, MOTHER Denim and RD’s own sunshine + bluebirds jewelry, clutches and scarves. Items are boxed and gift-wrapped, and there is no return time limit.

Prices are “mid to high-end,” she said. “We have entry-level price points, because we want to have something for everyone. We’re in the Nordstrom to Bloomingdale's price range. But we also have like just quick pick-me-up things. So, we kind of do a little bit of high low.”

He noted, “I would say that probably a better way to describe what our mix is, is we do the homework for the consumer. If we have an item in here that's a little bit more expensive, we believe it's worth paying the price for the more expensive item. We're really value-oriented.”

She said, “I’ll look at high fashion, and then we just translate that into something that everyone can buy.”

Rani acknowledged Lewiston is already home to a handful of clothing stores, but said, “We're totally supportive of any boutiques. We think the more shopping and the more community, the better.

“When we go to other cities that have awesome towns and villages, it's like a collection of restaurants and bars and things to do. And we see that in the Hamptons – we had a pop-up shop in the Hamptons. You create a community, and then people from all over come to that, and they hit up everyone.”

He said, “We consider online our competitors – not other stores. We want to help them. Online is the true foe of brick and mortar. You want people to say, ‘Should I click this button, or should I go there and have a great experience?’ ”

She said, “I think that's where we end up busiest is like mothers and daughters or friends want to meet for coffee and then go shopping. It's that experience – that's the connection.”

Mayor Anne Welch said, “It is my pleasure to welcome RD – Research and Design – to the Village of Lewiston. The new owners, Rani and Dennis Salemi, have transformed the former bank into a beautiful retail establishment offering a selection of top fashion brands, accessories and gifts. They also have another shop in Orchard Park and have years of retail business experience, so I know RD –Research and Design – will be very successful in Lewiston. This shop is truly an asset to our village, and it is sure to be a draw for visitors and residents alike.”

Research and Design is located at 721 Center St. For more information, call 716-405-7090 or visit www.researchanddesign.com or https://www.sunshineandbluebirds.com/.

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