Hot stuff for Christmas
By Rachel Coleman
It’s a hot, Indian-summer afternoon, and Amber Welch surveys the five-pallet delivery stacked on the grass a bit wearily. This is the fourth batch of goods received at the Amber Marie & Co. warehouse in a week, and cardboard-box towers have already created a maze inside the French doors behind her.
But Welch’s physical fatigue is offset by anticipation. She and her mother and business partner, Jere Welch, ordered the holiday-themed products back in January, when carols, gifts and customers’ favorites were fresh in their minds. Three fourths of a year later, opening the boxes is like Christmas all over again.
“When we start unwrapping things, we’ll be saying, ‘Oh, look! I forgot we ordered this … it’s great!” Amber said. “It’s exciting to see this stuff.”
The mother-daughter venture has excitement to spare. After just four years, Amber Marie & Co. has grown from a wholesale retail supplier to something more complex — and, according to the owners, more fun.
“We were driving home from college right after Amber had graduated,” recalled Jere, “and she told me about this great idea she had. She said, ‘Mom, this is what I want to do.’”
Throughout her final semester in college, Amber had researched the idea of an import business that would bring home decor, gift and apparel items to Liberal, then offer the goods wholesale to stores in the Midwest region through trade shows and conferences.
“I wanted to focus on what was hot, the new thing that everybody was going to want next,” she said, “and I had all these great overseas connections from school.”
Still, Amber knew from experience — nearly 100 years’ worth — that opening such a store in her hometown would pose real challenges.
“Retail just runs in our family’s veins,” she said. “Retail, and glitter.”
Jere’s father ran his own men’s clothiers for more than 50 years. In turn Jere and her sister owned and operated an interior design, gift and bridal business in Liberal for 20 years. Amber grew up helping with inventory, displays and customer service, which she credits with giving her a flair for design.
“Growing up in that environment gives you experience and talent that can’t really be taught,” she said. Even with the right products and the right approach, however, she knew “a community the size of Liberal can’t necessarily support the kind of store like I wanted,” she said.
So mother and daughter debuted with Amber’s original focus: import “neat stuff,” show it at regional trade shows, and ship orders to retail outlets from a base in Liberal. It worked, Jere said, because the “blonde duo from Kansas” went the extra mile at trade shows.
“When we set up our booth, people would laugh and say ‘Here come the girls who set up an entire store,’ but you know, shoppers liked that and they’d be lined up at the cash register all day,” said Jere.
It wasn’t just the volume of merchandise that attracted buyers.
“People know we always have neat, interesting stuff,” Amber said. “We like to say we look for products in the pulse of the retail and design industry.”
A brick and mortar venture, with overhead expenses and payroll obligations and inventory often opts to play it safe. Amber Marie & Co., by contrast, can take a chance on a multicolored candy chandelier light fixture priced just under $200, or a wine bottle holder shaped like a high-heeled shoe and covered with zebra print. Customers seem to love the edgy, spirited attitude, even in a recession.
Jere Welch shrugs off worries about consumers whose budgets have tightened.
“You can’t live in fear,” she said. “God has blessed us, but it also makes sense to keep going when naysayers are talking doom and gloom. If everybody gets scared and stops buying inventory, there’s nothing to sell, and nobody buys. It turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“And people keep buying those zebra-print wine bottle holders,” Amber added. “When I look at what we’re selling on the Internet, I’m always surprised.”
Today, Amber Marie & Co. has expanded to include a briskly trafficked website and three retail outlets in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Rogers, Ark.
“At the shows, people would come up and ask ‘where can we come to shop for your stuff,’ so we found a woman who sets up and runs retail outlets for people like us, in key locations,” Amber said.
Meanwhile, mother and daughter continue what they jokingly refer to as their “gypsy ways.” They’ve made trips to scout out products and meet suppliers in China, Asia and Europe. During a visit to Paris last spring, Amber was thrilled to see a popular shoe style similar to an order she had already placed.
“I said, ‘Look! This is the trend in Paris, and we’re going to have this in Kansas,’” she recalled. The business also carries products from Peru, India and Eastern Europe.
Shoppers in Southwest Kansas can visit ambermarieandcompany.com on the Internet, or stop at the warehouse, which offers wholesale prices to the public. The warehouse is located at the intersection of Tucker Road and Kansas Ave., on the northwest corner next to Prairie Gardens nursery.
“We’re not open regular hours, but whenever someone is there working, customers are welcome to shop,” Amber said. As an end-of-season, holiday blow-out, Amber Marie & Co. will offer a big warehouse sale the second weekend in December.
Until then, the Welches continue to visit shows and festivals from Tennessee to Colorado.
“We get a lot of invitations, and we’ve won awards,” Amber said, but the affirmation she savors most is the company’s success in defining trends.
“No matter where you go, the perception is that if you go to the bigger city, to Wichita or Dallas or New York or Paris, that’s where the hot stuff is. But here we are in a small town in Liberal bringing cutting-edge design to Kansas and Lafayette, La., and Dallas and Denver.”
She laughed and added, “in those big cities, people buy from us and say they want to make a road trip out here to see our warehouse.”
Amber and Jere Welch just shake their heads, pack up the trailers, and head back out to the next show on the road, then home again to Liberal.