The Thicket, The Nest and Branches offer a powerhouse home decor trifecta and a magnetic retail destination for Springfield, Missouri, shoppers—but that was never founder Ron Johnson’s vision when he opened in 1997.

“My original intent was to have this little business where I would only open up four weekends a year and just do seasonal events,” says Johnson. At the time, he held a job with a wholesale floral company that he intended to keep. The Thicket was to be just a side business selling permanent florals. Before long, Johnson was meeting customers in the space every night and frantically fielding requests full time. “It just exploded,” he says.

Today, at 4,000 square feet, The Thicket boasts a fiercely loyal following, and Johnson, with his wife Debbie, has added two complementary retail locations: The Nest, featuring fresh flowers and garden decor, opened in 2004; Branches, offering home decor and permanent botanicals, followed in 2006. The Nest and Branches are each smaller at 1,000 square feet, and all three stores are located right next to each other in a strip-center setting in central Springfield. Each has its own look and feel and has developed its own clientele, although The Thicket is considered the main attraction, boasting new inventory daily from vendors such as K&K Interiors, Napa Home and Garden, Cody Foster, Winward Silks and Midwest-CBK.

“I wish I could say I had this brilliant idea in the beginning,” says Johnson, “but to be honest, everything has just evolved into what it is.”

‘We’re Kind of Like Cheers’
One of the hallmarks of Johnson’s stores is the staff longevity. Of all the employees, more than half have been with the shops at least a decade. New hires always train with multiple employees, and all staff members have the ability to work at whichever location they are needed. Employees greet each customer at the door with the intention of getting to know them personally. They also help carry purchases out to the car.

“Our main focus is to provide excellent service and make our customers feel appreciated for their continued support,” says staff member Melanie Braun.

Unlike most retail stores today, the Thicket and its sister shops have very little online presence—no website, no Twitter or Pinterest accounts, and they’ve only recently dipped a tentative toe into Facebook. (The Thicket currently nets around 1,100 followers.) Admittedly, Johnson is now having trouble connecting with the web-savvy 30-somethings that made up his core shoppers when he first opened for business—a group that prefers online shopping—but he isn’t anxious to change any time soon.

“The whole reason I started my shop was because I needed this creative outlet, and I wanted a fun place where people could just kind of hang,” he says, adding that for the first five or six years every sales ticket was scrawled out by hand to avoid the “impersonal” ringing of a cash register. “There are people that we see every day. We know about their lives and their kids and their husbands. You know, we’re kind of like Cheers.”

To maintain existing customers, Johnson relies on those personal relationships and the priceless word of mouth they provide. He invests heavily in direct-mail postcards five times each year; four to announce open houses and a fifth advertising an annual summer sale. He also produced a book called My Favorite Things, selling nearly 2,000 copies thus far, to help spread the word.

Open for Business
Johnson’s stores are probably best known for their epic multi-day open houses, which are held quarterly, always around the same dates. Johnson says that managing all that inventory can be “a nightmare,” but the open houses force staff to flip the entire store at least four times a year, keeping things truly fresh. “I just can’t tell you how much work it is, but that’s why we’re successful. That’s why people come. Because they know it’s going to be new and fun and different.”

The Christmas event draws the largest turnout, with an estimated 2,000 people visiting the store. (Some customers have even been known to plan their vacations around the open-house dates.) At each event, staff members award the first 400–700 customers with an $8–$14 Old World ornament.

It’s All about the Relationships
Johnson does the vast majority of purchasing himself. He reads every home decor magazine, spends “a lot of time at market” and tries to meet with vendors’ sales reps on a weekly basis.

Although the days of 18-hour shifts are long gone for Johnson, he still works seven days a week in the stores that have become so integral to his and his customers’ lives—and there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.

“Few businesses started with a smaller budget and bigger dream,” he says. “Although we dreamed big, we couldn’t have imagined it would turn into the destination shopping experience it has become.”

5 Fun Questions

What is the most unique sale or promotion you’ve ever had?
“We did a really elaborate event for the royal wedding. Our customers came wearing fancy hats. We had a royal guard at the door, a big wedding cake, and life-size cutouts of the queen and William and Kate that customers could take pictures with. A local TV crew even came to do a live broadcast.”

What item were you unsure of when you ordered but it sold better than expected?
“Faux Fur Snuggies from a company called Jubilee in New York. They’re little fur collars that have an opening in one end so the other end pushes through it, and they fit snugly around your neck. We’ve sold almost 1,000 of them in seven weeks!”

What fun things do you do for your staff?
“Our employees are all so creative, and they all live in very beautifully decorated homes. So the most fun thing we ever did was to have our own Christmas tour one year where we chartered a bus and spent several hours going from employee’s home to employee’s home and just comparing Christmas decorations. It was a really fun, fun evening that we all still talk about.”

Have you ever had a celebrity come into your store?
“Not really. In Springfield, Missouri, we don’t really have celebrities. We’re so remote here that we get excited if we see the weatherman at the grocery store; that’s a big deal.”

Which of the three stores is your favorite?
“I have to say, I love the look of Branches. It’s more of a controlled look. The Thicket is just almost overwhelming sometimes even for me. The displays can be a bit explosive, and we hang hundreds and hundreds of things from the ceiling. So when you walk in, it’s pretty visual. Sometimes, I like the calmer look in Branches.”