Starting out with only four lipsticks, AH Collection began twenty-five years ago as a makeup line. Today, AH Collection has three locations throughout the Indianapolis area – in Carmel, and Noblesville – and makes staying on top of trends for women ages 15-70, look effortless. AH Collection’s style spans from studio, to street wear, to date night. Think hip, and classy! We chatted with owners Anne and Holly to glean some insights on what it takes to run such a successful business.
When did you open your store?
Anne: We started twenty-five years ago doing home boutiques. So that’s important, I think, for people to understand. It wasn’t just all of a sudden we thought we’re going to open up a retail store. Holly and I both were stay at home moms. We were entrepreneurs and we had other side businesses. We had home boutiques and started having people come to our homes and we would apply and sell makeup to them. Then we custom created our own makeup line, called AH Collection. We did home boutiques for fifteen years and we networked with a lot of at home moms that owned businesses.
Then, when the downturn in the economy started, in 2008, Simon Malls reached out to us to try to come and bring what we had created in our homes to their stores. So, we opened up at Clay Terrace almost thirteen years ago. We started there and then we opened up at Hamilton Town Center. We had that location for about six years. Fashion Mall reached out to us, so we closed the Hamilton Town Center location after six years and then moved to the Fashion Mall, which we had for about two and half years. We found that we did best with having only two stores so we bought the Northview Mall location and here we are fifteen to twenty-five years later. So, we’ve had our store fronts for about thirteen years.
How many full-time employees do you have?
Anne: We have a couple full-time employees, but really in our busy season we have 22 employees. In our slower seasons, if you will, we have fifteen part-time employees.
What do you sell at AH Collection?
Holly: We sell apparel, handbags, shoes, candles and a little bit of home decor, but mostly fashion. We have accessories of every sort from hats to bracelets, necklaces, scarfs, etc.
Anne: You hit it! It’s just really women’s fashion and footwear. We’ve really expanded our footwear.
What are you previous jobs/ventures?
Holly: We met through the health industry, we were fitness instructors. I had a health club in the Geist area, so that was my first entrepreneurship at age 23. I sold it, because I felt that I wanted to start a family. I then became a personal trainer and then we started our own makeup line. We were never going to own a store.
Anne: Never! She’s a stay at home mom of three, and I have six children. So we never planned this, because our faith and our family is always first. This kind of just molded as we grew. We didn’t start it thinking we’re going to have this empire. We started it with four lipsticks.
Why did you decide to open a storefront?
Holly: It was definitely in 2008.
Anne: When Simon Malls asked us, it was interesting, because we got to negotiate it to be the way we wanted it to be. They reached out to us and we said ‘Look we’ll bring the peeps, but we’ll be open from this time to this time, while our kids are at school, and we’re done after Christmas.’
Holly: It was a pop up store.
Anne: We said we would pay ‘this’ and said ‘okay.’
Holly: I wish we had that same power now.
Tell me about your online store.
Holly: We started it three years ago, put the brakes on a little bit last year and now we’re full throttle, because we know that’s where it’s at. Our long term goal is to definitely pick that up and possibly have one store and one website, if that continues to grow.
Anne: Holly and I wear every hat in this company. It’s not like we have everybody doing everything for us.
Holly: There’s not enough profit margin in retail to have this person, that person staffed. If we want to make money, we have to do a lot of things.
List five skills/qualifications that you think are important to have before launching a storefront?
Anne: We’ve seen so many stores come in and out. They invested their life savings in it, but Holly and I have never even taken a loan. When we started, we negotiated short term leases. You also need passion and to follow your heart! You’ve got to be feeling like ‘this is everything.’ You have to know you feel good about it. If you have questions or doubts, then don’t. If you’re passionate about it, you’re going to be successful.
Holly: Some people open up a store and their mentality is ‘they’ll come running’ and they don’t necessarily. You’ve got to be a risk taker, know your location, have business knowledge, and know that your biggest assets are your relationships.
What’s the most effective marketing tool you’ve been using lately?
Holly: Social media and having a great email list!
What’s more important when opening a storefront: location, having a nice cash cushion, or having a lot of retail experience? Why?
Anne: The retail experience will come, but location is a must location.
Holly: Cash? Let’s have some. You can never have too much money!
How do you decide which vendors/products/brands you want to carry in your store?
Holly: This has been something we’ve toyed around with for a long time. We decided ours is wider. We’re not just looking for you, we’re looking for you and your mom. We’re two generational, we’re sophisticated Forever 21, that concept, you know? We’re keeping Indy hip, but doing it with class.
Anne: That’s perfect Holly! You just put our last twenty-five years in like two sentences!
Do you work with vendors on a consignment basis?
Anne: Yes, and most of them are people that work with us in our stores. We really are all about networking with women in business and giving our store that opportunity for somebody that can’t afford or have the client to do it. So yes, we do consignment.
Holly: … and truck shows! Sometimes we’ll have an artist pop up for the weekend or a day.
Anne: We’re all about empowering other women.
Do you carry any local vendors/brands? Why/why not?
Holly: Yes. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the fragrance ‘Amber’, but it is an essential oil company started by a lady named Amber. She’s from Indianapolis and her line is everywhere. Possibly international, but she’s in many boutiques all over the United States. When we started we were in our homes, she was in her home, she was dropping off, we were picking up and now when we order we have to wait a week to get our shipment. She has really grown, and that is one bigger line we have. Then we have lots of little lines, like candles, some of the jewelry, etc. We have a gal that has recently been repurposing Louis Vuitton. It’s real Louis Vuitton. She’s cutting them and making key chains and hats. We think that’s really fun!
Anne: Probably because that’s how Holly and I started, we appreciate and know what these women are doing daily. You know, making their wares. It’s fun to work with them. I mean, they help too, because it brings people into our stores. So it’s a win-win.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in running your business?
Anne: Staying relevant. We’ve been doing this for twenty-five years, so we’ve probably rebranding four or five times. We’ve been very blessed with how we’ve started. I don’t know if there are very many companies that can say they’ve been business partners for twenty-five years and have made it work. Actually, that hasn’t been a challenge.
Holly: That and staff, sometimes that can be a challenge. We have amazing people, but we had a wonderful manager that moved and that created a real void trying to replace her.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of opening their own storefront?
Holly: Open a website! I have discouraged a couple of graduates from college that have asked me, not that we aren’t going to survive, because we’re in it. It’s just not a growing business, so that’s why I said what I said. We know it’s harder today to be local, even for franchises, like Forever 21 is gone.
Anne: Fortunately, in the retail business, right now, boutiques are standing tall, because a lot of the big conglomerates are going out, because people want more customer service, and you’ll get the best here. Again, it’s staying relevant enough and exciting enough, because everything is so fast paced.
Holly: If you have a great location and they’re passionate about it, then yeah. There’s new entrepreneurs everyday and you don’t want to crush their spirits.
Anne: If you want to do it, do it.
What advice would you give to an up-and-coming brand looking to build a strong relationship with a retailer?
Anne: I’d say get with an influencer and get your product out there.
Holly: Trunk shows are an inexpensive way for them to get out there and test their market, then add in a fashion blogger or two.
Are there any online resources that you regularly visit to help you run your business better, or keep up with the latest industry trends?
Holly: There are several, but I don’t know if we would publicize which ones they are. We go online and follow bloggers and websites. Our next goal is to follow more websites, because we are trying to grow ours. We don’t want to be copy cats, but we do want to learn from those that are doing it well.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Anne: The reason Holly and I have been so successful as business partners, is because we did not start out as friends. We started out as business partners and grew together.
Holly: It’s honestly like a marriage! Another thing I’d like to add is we host charitable events almost weekly, sometimes biweekly. We give back to the community. We’re doing one for Have A Heart For Addiction for the opioid crisis. There’s a friend of ours doing a documentary and she’s raising money to do it. We’ve done some for American Cancer Society, Riley Children’s Hospital, school fundraisers, etc. We use our stores to give back as a place where people can host an event to raise money for their cause.