Growing up, Vanessa Lazarz was always “that” friend who others called to ask what they should wear. No one who knows her was surprised when she established Ana Blair’s Boutique, now at 820 E. 1st St., Merrill.
It took several years, and a journey that included a career in nursing, marriage and the forthcoming birth of her fifth child to lead Lazarz to take steps to having her dream materialize. It started with the establishment of Ana Blair’s Boutique in a 10-foot X 5-foot room in her home. That was a meager beginning for the business, and she began by selling out of her house direct to customers primarily via Facebook.
“I’d run a three-day sale and post pictures of inventory. People would pick a size, I’d manually invoice, and then, they’d arrange a pickup time or I’d deliver the items to them at their convenience around my children’s sporting events,” Lazarz said.
The impetus to carve that space out of her home came when she acknowledged that juggling five children required more flexibility than her nursing career provided. She decided to start it online as a way of testing the waters, earning a bit of extra money, with the hopes of transitioning to doing it full time. Her first sale was in September 2016. Her son was born in January 2017.
It did entail a learning curve. She was completely new to purchasing clothing and had a few misses among the hits. She was fortunate to meet a woman who introduced her to opportunities where wholesale goes to market. That led her to leave the off-price market and move into the wholesale one, always focusing on clothes for everyday women who want to dress nicely but also need functional clothes. The business broadened to pop ups at craft fairs and women’s nights in addition to online sales.
As the business grew, so did the desire for more room and a designated space to have a cute little shop. On Feb. 22, 2017, Lazarz was about four weeks into her maternity leave, drove past a space she had often thought was adorable and noticed a “for rent” sign outside. It was her wedding anniversary and her husband was waiting for her at home while she dropped off her youngest kids at a friend’s. But she stopped, called the landlord, met him at the 500 square-foot space and told him she’d take it.
When she got home, the first thing her husband asked was what had taken her so long. She proceeded to call the bank and then her family to ask for their help in remodeling it the next weekend. By March 2017, the storefront was remodeled and Lazarz hung out her shingle. She planned to work part of the time out of the boutique while juggling the nurse case management she performed from home, but that wasn’t meant to be.
“Out of the gate, people were very excited about the boutique opening, and I never went back to work full time,” she said. “I went down to occasional status and hired someone to work one to two days a week.”
The momentum continued and even though the space was a mere 500 square feet, Lazarz managed to squeeze in a full-service coffee bar, but she began to want more space and kept an eye open for other space opportunities around town.
One of the other business owners in the small business group she created in Merrill mentioned she was planning to close her business, sparking Lazarz’s interest in a building she loved. She contacted the building’s owner with the woman’s permission and arranged to move in when the other woman departed. The beauty of that was vast space that allowed for four times the inventory in apparel and accessories, expanded dressing room area, seating area for the coffee bar an
“I’ve always been drawn to a more holistic side of care, and the infrared sauna is a great example of that,” she said. She already carried essential oil bracelets, organic and aluminumfree deodorants, essential oils and other natural items that have their own following.d even an infrared sauna — a carryover from her nursing career.
They moved in fall 2019 and saw an increase in traffic in the store. Lazarz says she’s amazed to hear how many people who enter the doors are there for the first time even though she says Ana Blair’s is the primary clothing source in the community.
She’s also amazed at the number of people who visit from Wausau who like the smalltown boutique feel, as well as residents of Antigo, Medford and Rhinelander. It’s led to enhancing the staff roster to a staff of five part-time and one full-time in addition to her. She left her nursing career behind last April. She brought on a marketing person in October and further enhanced the online components of the business including hosting a Tuesday Night Live show every Tuesday on Facebook. Staff show nine to 15 new items every week, and people who are interested can express interest on Facebook and click through to an automatic invoice. Orders are processed and in the mail by the next day.
That’s been great fun, Lazarz says, with live sales generating about one-quarter of the store’s sales. Another small portion is on the website, and two-thirds of sales are in-store. They drive traffic into the store with lots of events including spring and fall fashion shows that require tickets to attend. Guests enjoy refreshments, receive a swag bag and can purchase the new fashion line introduced at a discount.
“People really look forward to it, and we draw people from as far as Green Bay and Chippewa Falls as well as a lot from the Greater Central part of the state,” Lazarz said.
The store has a loyal following; it was recognized as Overall Favorite & Storefront Boutique of the year for the State of Wisconsin through Boutique Hub, the largest global third-party source for independent retailers.
“Our customers are crazy loyal and bring friends and family in all the time,” said Lazarz, who has held a customer appreciation party the past several Octobers.