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Women-owned businesses help guide Southgate’s evolution in shifting retail world

Whitney Oliver planned to become an archaeologist. But now, like five other women-owned businesses in Southgate Mall, she thrives in retail leadership.

Parlaying her people strengths and solid retail experience into a brick-and-mortar clothing shop for women, Oliver has emerged as the owner of Apricot Lane Boutique, a business she purchased in 2019.

“I never saw myself as a fashion boutique owner,” said Oliver. “But that’s okay, because sometimes you fall in love in with something unexpected.”

It seems a perfect fit, as she spent eight years as a manager, buyer and sales associate with the company since it opened in 2011. Simultaneously, she coached girls’ cheerleading while also teaching young women professional skills and preparing them for the ups and downs of life.

She offers a line of clothing tailored to local tastes and preferences for girls and women ranging in size from extra small to extra large.

Shoppers may be happy to hear that Oliver will soon include the Spanx brand in her boutique.

“Spanx is another woman-led fashion company we’re excited to be partnering with,” she said. “Spanx doesn’t do their own storefronts, but we’ll be selling their line. Through retail partners like our store is how they bring their product to their customers.”

Apricot Lane is part of the California-based Country Visions franchise, which Oliver said is a strength.

“We have similar support that is different from just as single store boutique. There’s power in the franchise with us working together. We work together.”

The community-oriented business model seems to be catching on at Southgate Mall, as Apricot Lane collaborates with others on events that draw shoppers to the mall for activities beyond shopping.

“It would be silly not to admit that malls of America are changing,” said Oliver. “We are seeing that change with less foot traffic, but more online shopping. But people still want to touch the product and the still want to see that place that brings people together. It’s exciting to see that going on. The malls that aren’t changing are dying, but Southgate Mall is changing.”

While it’s unfortunate to see local businesses close, Oliver said, it opens new opportunities for new business to move in and for new ideas to thrive. The upcoming Valentine’s Day sip-n-shop offers free cocktails, mocktails, sweet treats, prizes and pampering services for shoppers, connecting beyond traditional retail.

“We’re cross-promoting,” Oliver said. “We’re working together. That’s what business in a small community is really all about – building each other up.”

Oliver also mentors local teens as models for promotional purposes while partnering with local nonprofits and other for-profit businesses. Among the events, she organizes a “prom launching,” in which 10 girls from Missoula and surrounding towns will drop in for free makeovers.

“It’s more about building women up and coming together to build them up,” said Oliver. “Not only are we promoting the business, but we’re also creating an opportunity for young women in our community to do something special. We want them to feel like a queen for a night and build their self-esteem.”

Apricot Lane partners with the Missoula Dance Cooperative downtown to sponsor a photo shoot, starring area teens wearing the shop’s clothing. Oliver uses the professional photos to promote the shop on social media, in print and via email marketing.

Model Erin Murphy, Big Sky High School senior and athlete, said modeling landed unexpectedly in her lap.

“Before this opportunity at Apricot Lane, I never could have imagined myself modeling,” said Murphy. “Modeling has helped build my confidence in myself.”

Apricot Lane conducts separate regular photo shoots using some of Oliver’s seven employees, plus outside models, while partnering with local businesses like Turner Farms and Sawyer Student Living.

Over the holidays, Apricot Lane drew heavy shopper support while sponsoring a giving tree in partnership with Watson’s Children’s Shelter to solicit gift donations and increase awareness.

As big box chain stores in Missoula close – in alignment with national trends – Oliver said Southgate Mall will increase the number of events.

“We are excited about having more in-store events in 2020 and giving back to our community,” Oliver added. “We will partner with local nonprofits to build up what we already have here in Missoula. We have done a little bit of that in the past, but we are planning more events, to raise up and empower others in the community.”

A charitable partnership with Kind Lips chapstick ensures that 20% of proceeds bolster anti-bullying messaging. It’s one example of Oliver selecting lines that give back to the community.

A 2010 University of Montana graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mathematical science and another in anthropology, Oliver relished a coveted Smithsonian archaeology internship in Panama. But working in a lab made her realize she missed people.

“It was absolutely awesome; I spent 6 months in an archaeology lab during hands-on training. I learned that I am a people person. It really creates a unique perspective because I am a problem-solver.”

Eventually, she fell in love with the retail business. Her infectious enthusiasm for bringing people together and mentoring teens rub off on others.

Murphy is a perfect example of Oliver’s approach.

“Modeling at Apricot Lane has been an exciting and fun experience,” Murphy said. “The ladies at Apricot Lane are very friendly and encouraging. I think other high schoolers should look into modeling for Apricot Lane because it is such a great way to meet new people.”

Contact Business Reporter Renata Birkenbuel at 406-565-0013 and renatab@missoulacurrent.com.