A strong and vibrant community relies on its small retail businesses to bring both personality and individuality to their product offerings and to the community vibe. They help add to the excitement of creating a place that outsiders want to visit and that residents are proud of.
Opening a small retail business takes an incredible amount of work and faith. It used to be retailers only had to worry about competing with big box stores. Now they face massive online competition that includes thousands of items to choose from at the stroke of a mouse, personalized stylists at no extra charge and Amazon’s free shipping. However, shopping locally has become a steadily growing trend in the Capital City, as people are always looking to find one-of-a-kind items as part of a personal statement. Recognizing this growing trend, a few local boutique owners are gambling that Topeka shoppers desire a hands-on shopping experience where they get to feel the quality of the items they are shopping for and try things on before they buy.
Ashley Carson, owner of Ash Boutique in Westboro, established the roots of her vision as a child when she sold friendship bracelets in her neighborhood. Realizing that she had a knack for design and sales, she enlisted her friends to make more bracelets to earn even more money.
“I remember this lady stopped by my driveway and bought all the bracelets, $10 worth,” Ashley said. “I was so excited! But then I didn’t have anything left to sell.”
Even at that young age, Ashley recognized that she needed to create a marketing and promotion plan so she could adapt to meet her customers’ needs in her future endeavors. Her first job was in retail and her entrepreneur soul continued to bloom.
Some boutiques work only in a storefront, while others use different approaches to sell. Ashley began to sell jewelry and accessories out of her home while raising her children and coping with an illness in the family.
“I did that for about six years,” Ashley said. “I always wanted a store. I saw someone moving out of the space where my store is now located, so I pulled over and called the landlord.”
When Ashley saw that storefront available in Westboro Mart, she knew she couldn’t pass it up. Even if she wasn’t quite ready to plunge into entrepreneurship, she knew that a place like this would not stay on the market long, and this was her chance to go all in.
Timing was not perfect, however. She found out she was pregnant with her third child when she put up the “coming soon” sign. Ash Boutique in the Westboro Shopping area sells clothing and accessories out of its storefront, while also selling online, through an e-commerce app and through a VIP social media app. This allows her customers to have a deep understanding of the products, while also learning more about the people selecting the items.
For Ashley, running a successful boutique also means mentoring others to open their own retail locations. She understands that the more Topeka has to offer its potential customers, the better off all businesses will be.
Ethan + Anna owners Aimee Rosenow and Kim Adair relied on Ashley Carson, owner of Ash Boutique, for her knowledge of creating a specialized boutique business to help them start their own boutique in Topeka. This relationship enabled them to navigate the tough road of starting a small business. Ashley was able to share valuable insights into how the market works and effective ways to create a close bond with customers.
These two friends, who met each other through their kids, had a strong sense of micro fashion and knew that other moms and dads needed some tiny clothing inspiration. They opened Ethan + Anna in the Brookwood Shopping Center in September of 2017. Even though the business partners were new to entrepreneurship, they had a pretty good idea about what they were getting into.
“Our husbands both own their own businesses, so we’re kind of in the small business arena,” Kim said. “I think there were no surprises with the amount of work that goes into a small business.”
They did their research, developed a business plan, and then enlisted the help of the Washburn University Small Business Development Center in Topeka.
“This is an amazing resource for people like us,” Aimee said.
Another resource enlisted by Aimee and Kim: marketing experts.
“We’ve worked with Sprout Communications to create videos that show our business, which were really fun to make. They had really cool ideas that fit our brand,” Aimee said.
The boutique relies heavily on social media to promote its products.
“We’ve created a VIP group where we also do sneak peaks,” Aimee said. “The changing of the algorithms is the difficult thing about social media. We want people to be in the loop and see what we’re posting.”
In addition to working with social media, Ethan + Anna aims to revamp its website in the next year to reach out to new clients and more effectively promote the clothing and fun events.
Heavenly Creations owner Lenora Williams always wanted to make people feel beautiful and felt she had a talent for doing so. A cosmetologist entrepreneur, she operates a hair and nail salon in her downtown location, but takes beauty one step farther. She also offers beautiful evening gowns and leisurewear lines for many occasions.
“People would always say to me, ‘You’re going to do something with hair or clothes,’ and I did both,” Lenora said.
For many business owners, a catalyst propels them into the business world whether they are ready or not. Lenora began her career working out of her home so she could care for her ailing father and three adopted girls.
“I wanted to be there for them,” she said.
Working from home allowed her to set her own hours while still doing what she does best—making people feel beautiful.
Having operated her salon and clothing boutique for 23 years, Lenora was debt free when she opened her new location at 116 SE 7th St. four years ago.
“In my case, it was really easy because I started out of my home,” Lenora said. “I didn’t have to worry too much about financing the business.”
She says she loves being downtown where the excitement is palpable. And with new businesses opening up around her, she is looking at how to grow her own business.
“With the revision of the downtown, we have investors that are buying everything,” Lenora said. “I’m trying to get a feel for what their plans are so I know where to go next.”
Reacting to the increasing demand for retail stores downtown, Lenora’s husband, Theodis Williams, opened a men’s clothing boutique last year. Because clothing is a large part of our identity, most people continually search for a style that reflects their personality. Men often get overlooked in the world of fashion, but Theodis Williams, who just happens to be Lenora’s husband, wanted to change that. He applied his unique talents of making men feel great in a beautiful suit and flashy tie to open the Distinqué Gentleman, a men’s clothing boutique at 112 SE 7th St., just a few doors down from his wife’s store. His store has a collection of shoes, suits, accessories and an in-house tailor to ensure every item fits perfectly. And Theodis always makes sure he is putting his best fashion foot forward.
“My wife tells me all the time, ‘You are your best advertiser,’” Theodis said.
Sometimes men have no idea what they are looking for, and that is when they turn to Theodis for fashion advice. His enthusiasm for clothes and accessories is infectious.
Now that the Distinqué Gentleman has been in place for nearly a year, Theodis says he is up for any challenge or opportunity that may lie ahead. With all of the excitement centered on downtown Topeka, Theodis says more people are finding his store.
“When a person comes to the capital city, they ought to be able to come downtown and find a nice shop, a nice restaurant, a nice bar if they want to go out and have a drink,” Theodis said. “Downtown should be a hub of the city. It should always have something to offer.”
He wants his store to add to the excitement that is attracting people downtown. He hopes the selection and service offered in his store will help convince customers to shop in town before going somewhere else.
“Many people will go down the highway to Kansas City to find something that they can find right here,” Theodis said. “Whether it’s a lawyer that wants a nice tailored suit or it’s a minister who wants a classic set-up, those items can be found in Topeka.”