When picturing a fashion boutique storeowner, the first thought that comes to mind usually isn’t a former fire captain, but that’s exactly what Ken Petersen did before he launched the first Apricot Lane Boutique. “I did what most firefighters do, go from firefighting to women’s fashion,” he says, laughing.
The boutique began in 1991 as a gift and collectibles shop – where it sold items such as Precious Moments statues – and gradually evolved to selling scarves, handbags and jewelry. The stores grew to three locations, and Petersen saw how beneficial franchising could be. He says there was a need in the industry for fashion franchising concepts, so he founded Apricot Lane Boutique in 2007. Now, there are 79 Apricot Lane locations in 33 states.
“We’re a unique boutique,” Petersen says. “One, from a franchise perspective, we allow our franchisees to buy their own products. We’ll set up their initial inventory and guide them, but they’re able to bring in their own products catered to local customer base. And two, we merchandise the stores with latest fashion, jewelry and handbags, all in the styles and trends customers want and base that on styles that fit a mom and daughter.”
Apricot Lane is intended to be a multi-generational store, catering to both a mother and daughter’s sense of style rather than focusing solely on one demographic. And Petersen says the stores have been able to hit that and the price point mark, where typically every item is $100 or less. “We’re hitting great quality at great prices,” he says. “It’s a sweet spot and part of our success.”
Being in fashion means consistently staying ahead of the trends and ensuring exclusivity in each of its stores. Apricot Lane tailors its fashions to the surrounding area and typical customer. In addition, the stores offer daily new arrivals that are in limited quantity. Customers can find brands such as Free People, Elan, BB Dakota, Hobo, Giving Keys, Sanctuary and Black Swan, which the shops source across the United States, from Los Angeles to New York. Many other brands come from the Los Angeles Fashion District, known for its on trend styles.
“It’s a goldmine there,” Petersen says. “We have a buyer that works exclusively for our stores because the only way to get the hottest trends first is to have boots on the ground. Boutiques around us are constantly scratching their heads wondering how we get access to first-run merchandise. And by the time they get it, we’re moving onto something else. So we’re three steps ahead.”
When selecting a franchisee, Apricot Lane looks for people who have a passion for fashion and someone that wants to be deeply involved in retail and making the store successful. “They don’t have to have retail/fashion/business background, but we’ve been very successful with taking franchisees and bringing them into our system and being successful,” Petersen explains. “We want someone that’s looking for a store not just to sell clothes and make money, but to use the store to be connected and give back to the community.”
A typical Apricot Lane franchisee is a family that wants to strike out on a new venture. Petersen or a real estate ambassador will go out – anywhere in the United States – and visit a prospective franchisee, spending the entire day scoping out potential retail locations and overall determining if the person will be the right fit. “We’re crazy about the right fit and making good decisions,” he says. “This kind of an investment is pretty unique. Once that fit is right, we bring them into the system we’ve prepared for them through an initial home training program.”
The home training system is a series of computer modules and tests that franchisees conduct on their own time while Apricot Lane tracks their progress. There is a lot to learn in retail, Petersen says, so after home training is a one-week corporate training program in Vacaville, Calif., followed by on-site opening training and merchandising. After opening, the company goes through a 120-day “hand-holding” period to ensure the franchisee is off to a great start. And then, more training is ongoing through webinars, video training and annual continuing education conferences.
“Those first four months are critical; critical to create good habits so they’re not going down the wrong road,” Petersen says. “We’ll focus on that with monthly calls, guiding, teaching and training, and then ease that hand-holding back for as much as they want or don’t want. We provide ongoing resources and opportunities for our franchisees to pick and choose what works best for them”
As additional support to its franchised stores, Apricot Lane enlisted the help of Cambeo Group, a company that specializes in retail support and streamlining internal processes such as human resources, marketing, operations, financial and social media. “I would have to hire a whole bunch of people that would provide the level of support Cambeo brings,” Petersen notes. “It’s been a phenomenal relationship.” Through this system, all the stores stay connected at the internal level.
Petersen says Apricot Lane is unique because it can offer so much more than a typical franchise establishment thanks to its 24 years of franchising experience, flexibility and culture. Its franchising infrastructure gives franchisees “the opportunities that only big retail stores typically enjoy.” These opportunities and resources include leveraged buying, training modules, store assessments, customer surveys, automated employee training programming and state-of-the-art point-of-sale systems.
“We have a network of franchisees who share what’s working and what isn’t, and that’s where the real strength comes from,” Petersen adds. “We’re learning from each other, and some of our best answers and ideas come from our franchisees.”
Apricot Lane’s vision is to be the leading fashion boutique franchise and make a positive difference in the lives of people. It does that through its mission statement: Do the right thing. “We believe that if we’re doing that, we will accomplish our vision, along with the right fit of finding franchisees who want to also make a positive impact in the lives of people and their communities,” Petersen says.
Apricot Lane wants its franchisees to have causes they care about and support. Petersen is very passionate about the issue of human trafficking and has united with 3 Strands, whose mission is to combat human trafficking through sustainable employment, education and engagement initiatives. Apricot Lane stores sell 3 Strands bracelets made by Cambodian girls who have escaped human trafficking. All of the profits go directly to support victims of this issue. The funds are used to help empower, teach and employ young women who may not have other opportunities.
This issue is especially close to Petersen’s heart because one of the Cambodian girls he hosted five years ago is now his daughter. “I’m just really proud of our system to embrace an issue like that.”
Petersen is also proud of the culture he has created within Apricot Lane: that everyone feels empowered to run their own franchise and is dedicated to both the stores and supported causes. “We exist solely to the support and success of our franchisees,” he says. “I’m proud of the culture, our team, our franchisees and the way we support each other and the culture that’s been born out of that. We’ve been successful here, and I think life’s too short to not be doing something you love.”
Originally posted in Franchising Today by By Stephanie Crets