Apricot Lane Boutique is the only specialty retail boutique company that offers branded-fashion apparel, jewellery, handbags, accessories and gifts in the styles and trends customers look for. It’s the kind of brand that appeals to shoppers and entrepreneurs in equal measure. Shoppers are drawn to Apricot Lane’s quality stylish clothing and customer service. Entrepreneurs love it for their unique and successful franchise opportunity.
The brand’s origin can be traced back to August, 1991, when former firefighters and furniture retailers Ken Petersen and Tom Brady opened their first retail gift store at Vacaville, California under the name Country Clutter. It was a tremendous success, and less than two years later, the Petersen-Brady partnership established a second and third store and began plans to franchise the concept. It was at this time that Scott Jacobs joined the partnership.
In 2007, Apricot Lane Boutique was introduced by supporting franchise company Country Visions as the first franchised women’s fashion and gift boutique. “As we looked at the fashion industry, we saw there was a big void. There was nobody franchising in the fashion industry. You had the fashion boutique operators and the really big national companies, but nobody in the middle,” CEO Ken Petersen says.
What sets Apricot Lane apart from the competition is the merchandising flexibility that allows each store to cater to their customer demographics. They have the ability to be different because they’re fast to react and respond to new fashion trends. They’ve got new products arriving weekly and their customers know to act quickly if they want to stay on the cutting edge. “If they like it, they better buy it because it won’t be there tomorrow,” Petersen says.
The brand has 15 corporate staff, including partners at the franchisor level. The typical franchise employs 10 or 12 employees per store. Between now and November 30th, 12 additional franchises are expected to open. By the end of 2012, Apricot Lane will have a total of 83 franchises in operation.
Apricot Lane is extremely proud of its 21 year history of zero litigation between them and their franchisees, which speaks to their philosophy about the business relationships with their franchise owners. “If we as a franchise company focus on the support and success of the franchisee, then we have a winning combination,” Peterson says. “I think that speaks to who we are at Country Visions.”
Apricot Lane is dedicated to the strength of its brands and to the success of every franchisee, Petersen says. That dedication is backed up by an extensive range of support.
When franchises come aboard, the company supplies them with all the support to operate their store like a national brand. They get access to real estate selection, buying, marketing, computer and technology support, networking, discounts and exclusive products, among others. “When you look at us as a franchise company, we’re supplying all that infrastructure and support for them to be successful,” he says.
Beyond the financial requirements, Apricot Lane looks for franchisees that have a “passion for fashion.” Their ideal candidates are people who understand the industry, but they do not necessarily need a business or marketing background. Apricot Lane is also open to input from their franchisees. A significant number of ideas and solutions have come from franchisees, Petersen says. “A lot of franchisees come to us with varied backgrounds and experiences, which we like to tap into and is a big part of why we’re successful,” he says.
Every month, they hold conference calls with their franchisees, where they talk about what’s working and what isn’t in their stores. “When you bring in that varied background and experience level and you’re open to that level of communication, it brings an unbelievable level of strength and support to the entire system,” says Petersen. “Besides our corporate buyers, we have buyers attending fashion markets all over the country – they are called, franchisees and everyone benefits from each other.”
Apricot Lane’s intensive training program begins with ensuring the trainee is a good candidate. Each prospective franchisee must complete a DISC profile. The results are compared against the “eagles” within the franchise system. The brand’s real estate team actively goes out and scouts locations, and meets with potential owners to look at real estate. Once a franchisee has joined, they begin a home training program wherein they are sent a computer, as well as manuals and written tests, which they have to submit back. “We’re going to teach them as much as we can while they’re at home, working around their schedules with work and their families,” Petersen says.
Later, during corporate training, owners go to Los Angeles for a day to meet the company’s buyers in the local fashion district to get a look into the industry. A merchandiser is sent to their store once corporate training is completed, to assist with merchandising and setting up. “Once we leave that, 90 days after they open is our post-opening training and that is where good habits are being developed,” Petersen says. “We’re then with them on an ongoing basis throughout.”
Giving back to the local community and making a difference around the world is critical to Apricot Lane Boutique. It is one of their main priorities and a focus when selecting qualified franchisees “It’s a big part of who we are,” Petersen says. For example, they’ve recently developed a cause related fashion brand called 3Strands Global (www.3StrandsGlobal.com), which is near and dear to Petersen’s heart. The brand was created to fight and end sex trafficking around the world.
“I became aware of this evil going on after hearing Don Brewster, founder of Agape International Missions (AIM) speak at our church about their efforts to rescue and restore victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia. We approached our franchise system and said, ‘We need to be about more than just opening stores and making money. How about we embrace this cause and set up a training center to employ victims of sex trafficking with great jobs and provide a hope for their future?’” he says. “It’s not an easy cause to embrace, but it’s something that we need to do.”
“We’re going to make a difference in this world beyond just selling fashion and apparel.”
They’re also involved in the breast cancer awareness month campaign in October and each franchisee supports their favorite local charities.
Another critical component to Apricot Lane is technology. Social media is “huge” within the company, Petersen says. They have an aggressive approach with their grassroots marketing campaign to use social media to engage their customers. “The customer experience is very important to us and we’ve embraced social media to enhance that experience and relationships are being developed through them,” he says.
Their franchisees are also starting to engage in e-commerce at the store level. Two of their stores are currently testing e-commerce – one in Peoria, Illinois and another in Dallas, Texas. “We’re very pleased with the results. Not only have they added new sales, but they’ve added on new e-commerce sales at a very aggressive rate,” he says. “It’s something we’re excited about and hoping to introduce and launch by the end of this year, new e-commerce opportunities to the rest of our franchisees.”
Hot Retail Concept
In 2008, the prestigious International Council of Shopping Centers Association (ICSC) voted Apricot Lane as the Hot Retail Concept for Fashion. ICSC has a membership of more than 35,000 who cast votes for this award. The recognition gives credibility to and validates the Apricot Lane brand, Petersen says.
“That award was a big one for us. We were honoured to be amongst past Hot Retailers. It really helped to launch us in the real estate world as far as landlords and developers are concerned,” he says.
One of the central challenges posed to Apricot Lane is faster than expected growth. “When you create an original and hot trend like Apricot Lane, you have to be careful and intentional not to grow faster than you can support,” Petersen says. For example, in the winter of 2011 they were opening close to 10 stores in one month. “We were a little behind the eight-ball and we dipped a little bit. Our franchisees actually felt our growth. My goal was that our franchisees never feel the growth and feel impacted,” he says.
Going forward, Petersen says growth will never be a challenge again – only an opportunity. At the start of 2012, they brought in an outside group for a three-day planning session to lay out goals and initiatives for the rest of the year. “If we’re going to open 30 stores this year, what do I need in an area of construction? What do I need in an area of training? Store openers? Merchandisers?” he says. “We went back and made sure we were being proactive.”
That strategy has since paid off – since February 2011, Apricot Lane franchisees have not felt the impact of the brand’s growth, Petersen adds.
As for the long-term future, Petersen sees Apricot Lane continuing to expand at an aggressive rate. They recently opened a new store at the Las Vegas International Airport, and their goal is to hit 50 stores next year, while opening additional 50 to 75 stores each year going forward. At the same time, Apricot Lane is more about quality rather than quantity, and that starts by finding great franchisees and locations that “fit together,” Petersen says.
“That is our focus,” he says in conclusion, “Balancing quality and quantity with managed growth that continues to build upon our infrastructure bringing new resources and opportunities to our franchisees to make them more successful.”