Laura Davis and Amy Robbins laugh that the best part of their job is helping to assemble other people’s wardrobes.
The two business partners formerly were neighbors and were introduced by a mutual friend about four years ago. Somewhere along the line after they first met, the question came up, “if you could do anything you wanted, what would it be?”
The answer was the same for both women: “Own a clothing boutique.”
After realizing that they held the same dream, Davis and Robbins decided to make it happen. Hours of research and brainstorming led them to the Apricot Lane franchise, which is the only women’s fashion boutique franchise in the country. Apricot Lane stores were established in 2006 by a national company called Country Visions, and there are now more than 40 stores in the United States.
Before they could launch the store in Springfield, Robbins and Davis had to be approved by a corporate representative, who came to town to personally review the demographics, potential store location and the city environment.
Approval was achieved, and months of planning and preparation ensued. Apricot Lane held its grand opening in April 2009 in The Gables, and its owners were “pleasantly surprised” by the turnout.
“The opening was smooth; it was better than we expected,” Robbins said. “We were swamped.”
The store itself is about 2,200 square feet and located between Westside Stories and LaBonte’s. Neat racks of clothing and tables of jeans and other displays are arranged on the hardwood that lines the floor. There is a comfortable sitting area directly outside of the changing rooms to enhance shopper experience, and catchy pop music can be heard throughout the store while browsing.
Along the back of the boutique, bright and sparkly formal dresses hang for young ladies attending prom or homecoming, or another formal event. Originally, men’s clothing was sold at Apricot Lane, but the menswear moved over early in the game to make room for the formal dresses.
“Homecoming and prom are so much more fun,” Robbins laughed.
The store keeps a “dressware” registry so its dresses are not duplicated at any of the area’s formal events.
“We decided against formal dresses in the beginning,” Davis said, “but we kept having people come in and ask about it, so we decided ‘why not?’ It’s nice to have that flexibility.”
Country Visions is unique in the fact that it allows each Apricot Lane franchise to be run at the discretion of the owner, with brands, clothing, décor and other details chosen specifically by the owner and not the company.
Robbins and Davis attend two fashion shows each year to choose the lines for the coming seasons that they will stock. Items that they choose to order for the store are hand-selected, and Apricot Lane only has a few sizes of each item, which means when it is sold, that piece won’t be on the rack again.
“We’ve been a little surprised at the demographic we’ve seen,” Robbins said. “We originally thought 20-40 for our target age range, but we’ve seen everything from preteens to women in their 80s.”
Clothing this year that will be popular includes embellished graphic T-shirts, cute sundresses and maxi-style dresses, leggings, and “ruffles, lace, vintage and anything flirty and fun,” said Robbins, who has become the store’s primary buyer. The store has also received a huge response to its denim and jewelry.
“We’re starting to be known for our denim and jeans; I didn’t know we would get that response,” Robbins said. “Jean shopping can be so scary, but we really know the fit and style of our jeans and can lean people toward something that is more flattering on their body type. To have someone to tell you that is huge.”
Don’t be fooled by the word “boutique” in the store’s name, though. There is “something for every budget” at Apricot Lane; while some high-end brands can be a little more costly, the store also has unique pieces of jewelry for $8 or $10.
“It’s no fun if you can’t afford to throw on fun accessories with that new top and jeans,” Davis said.
Robbins and Davis send out a weekly newsletter to let customers know what has arrived recently in the store and upcoming events or news, and the store participates frequently in community events to showcase new styles and items, as well as support the local community.
The owners also invite groups of women into the store after hours for fashion parties. Apricot Lane has hosted as few as six and as many as 50 for this girls’ night out event, where discounts are offered, drinks and appetizers are served, door prizes are handed out and the groups of friends get to do what they love: shop.
“We do these about once or twice a week; the average for a group is about 20-ish,” Davis said. “Amy puts together an e-vite for the host to send out, and everyone leaves with a free gift from us. It’s a fun night out with your girlfriends.”
Springfield resident Amy Snyder first heard about Apricot Lane soon after its opening, when a friend told her about attending a fashion party there. Now Snyder regularly stops into the store and has purchased everything from shoes to dresses to jewelry.
“I shop there more than I like to admit,” Snyder laughed. “I like the selection and how it changes weekly. The clothing is not like everything you see in all of the chain stores. Amy, Laura and the girls are phenomenal, and I always enjoy going in there.”
Snyder said she hosted her own after-hours fashion party at Apricot Lane in December and hopes to make it an annual event for her friends.
“I think a lot of my friends’ girlfriends had never walked in there and were expecting everything to be $100 or more, and they were all surprised,” she said. “The price point can fit anyone’s budget.”
Starting the store in a down economy hasn’t seemed to have a negative impact on its success, and Davis and Robbins are excited about the future possibilities for Apricot Lane Springfield. As for a five- or 10-year plan, however, that doesn’t exist; the owners simply intend to grow the store as each opportunity comes.
Opening the franchise in another central Illinois city is always a possibility, but for now, Davis and Robbins are enjoying the Springfield clothing scene.
“It’s still growing; about 40 to 50 percent of people who come in are new to us still,” Davis said. “It’s nice to see new people coming in. We’re taking it as it comes; we have no solid plans. We’re enjoying it. We don’t want it to become work. We have fun here.” n
Story published Friday, May 7, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 3 )