feature story


three times

the fun

How a Springfield, Mo., florist gets the public pumped for the holiday season at his trio of shops.

by Kelsey E. Smith


    Ron Johnson knows how to party. He and his wife, Debbie, have hosted four open houses each year since opening their original 4,000-square-foot home décor and gift shop, The Thicket, in 1997. Since then, they have opened two more shops. The Nest, a 1,000-square-foot fresh-flower shop where Mrs. Johnson spends most of her time, opened four years ago, and Branches, a 1,000-square-foot shop with stems of quality permanent botanicals and containers, opened two years ago. All three shops are in the same strip center in Springfield, Mo., providing a destination shopping experience for the residents of this southwest Missouri community of about 150,000. And the open houses, which sometimes span several days, have gotten bigger and better.

  The Thicket, The Nest and Branches at a glance

 
 
Owners: Ron and Debbie Johnson
Number of shops: 3
Location: Springfield, Mo.
Opened: The Thicket, 1997; The Nest, 2004; Branches, 2006
Shop size: The Thicket, 4,000 square feet; The Nest and Branches, each 1,000 square feet
Clientele: mainly middle- to upper-income
Specialties: home décor and gifts at The Thicket; fresh flowers at The Nest; stems of quality permanent botanicals and containers at Branches
Average fresh arrangement price: $50
Number of employees: 13 (six full-time, seven part-time)

 


 

spreading the word
    The largest of the open-house events kicks off the Christmas season. It begins on Nov. 1 and goes through the following Sunday, regardless of the day of the week on which Nov. 1 falls. Last year, the event lasted four business days.
    Getting the word out about such an event can be quite an undertaking. The Johnsons utilized several types of promotions to let people know about the 2007 Christmas open house.
    In addition to a $900 advertising package the business purchased in The Springfield News Leader, which has a section listing all of the community’s open houses together, the Johnsons utilized direct mail. Mr. Johnson says direct mail is their best form of advertising.
    The business sent custom-printed postcards to about 2,300 people—its “priority” customers—at a cost of approximately $975, including postage. They were mailed in time to arrive three or four days prior to the event. Mr. Johnson points out that if they are sent too early, people tend to forget. The fronts of the postcards, which are sent for each of the open houses throughout the year, feature a picture of a collectible seasonal ornament the company gives to the first 500 customers. “People tell us they even collect the postcards,” he relates. “Sometimes if it’s gotten dirty in the mail or something, they’ll come in to get an extra one. Springfield is relatively small, but we know the majority of our customers really well, and they all take so much pride in what we do. They really feel like they’re a part of it.”
    Perhaps the most talked about open-house promotion is one that deals with “overhead,” quite literally. “We hire an airplane at Christmas that flies all over town with a banner that reads ‘Christmas Open House at The Thicket,’” Mr. Johnson says, adding that The Thicket is the most recognizable name of the three stores. The expense for last year’s aerial production was around $1,500, which included two hours of flight time on the first day and one hour on each subsequent day of the open house. The plane added to the excitement at the onset of the event, circling above the parking lot for about 15 minutes prior to the shops’ opening.

get this party started
    In addition to the airplane’s presence, music helps set the tone for the Christmas event. To further ignite enthusiasm among customers and employees, the Johnsons depart from the soft, classical music that is played at many retail open houses.
    “We crank the music up to where you would think you’re at a rock concert,” Mr. Johnson describes. “When we open the doors, the shop is vibrating. We have the music as loud as it will go for the first 15 minutes or so, then we turn it down. We play really upbeat, fun Christmas music on CDs we also sell.”
    A bit of mystery also is in the air as customers wait for the shops’ windows to be revealed. The shops are closed for two days prior to the event while staff members work to prepare holiday displays. All windows are covered, then they are unveiled about two minutes before the commencement of the open house.
    Last year, people began lining up outside about an hour before the shops’ 10 a.m. opening. Mr. Johnson attributes the early visitors, in part, to the free ornaments given to the first 500 customers, which costs the business around $1,800 but generates loyalty among those who collect them. “We started giving away ornaments about five years ago, and it’s been an effective thing,” Mr. Johnson relates. “They’re really nice ornaments from the company Old World, and they usually have a retail value between $7 and $12. At our Christmas open house last year, we gave away 500 in barely over two hours.”
    Mr. Johnson relates that it gets crowded at The Thicket during the first hour of each open house, because that’s where the ornaments are given away, but people quickly start spreading out among the other stores. He shares that the excitement is contagious.
    “We make it really fun,” he says. “I’ve been to open houses where people just walk through store after store after store, and nobody ever says anything. It’s not like that here. People are talking and laughing, and they just get so excited.”

in good taste
    Food is served outside in a covered area between the stores, weather permitting. Last November, the Johnsons hired a caterer, who began serving ham-and-cheese breakfast roll-ups about 15 to 20 minutes before the stores opened. Other hors d’oeuvres, such as winter chicken salad in pastry pockets and several types of sweet pastries, were served throughout the day, along with cookies, which the business bought from two local bakers.
    Mr. Johnson says the caterer prepared food for 500 people each day. “She always ran out of food, but it’s so hard to gauge how many people to expect,” he says. “And once the hors d’oeuvres were gone, we still had cookies.”
    The total cost for the food, including hors d’oeuvres and approximately 150 dozen cookies, was around $4,000, Mr. Johnson relates.

stellar sales
    Although the Johnsons do not have a definite count of how many people attended last year’s Christmas open house, Mr. Johnson estimates, based on the amount of food consumed, that 3,000 to 3,500 people stopped in over the four-day period. And people didn’t just attend the open house; they purchased as well. The first day at The Thicket alone generated $26,000 in sales.
    “It was truly amazing,” Mr. Johnson says. “We sold around 1,600 items the first day.”
    He notes that no discounts are offered during the businesses’ open houses. “We don’t need to,” he explains. “I see so many shops where the first day they have the merchandise out, they already have it on sale, and I just don’t understand why they do that.”

teamwork is key
    Although many florists hire additional staff for large, in-store events, Mr. Johnson says that his team of six full-time employees (four of whom are designers) and seven part-time employees have adopted an efficient system for accommodating the large sales volume the events generate.
    “We have two registers at The Thicket, and we have people who are wrapping and bagging while others are ringing up the sales,” Mr. Johnson says.
    Regarding everyday staffing, it is to the businesses’ advantage that they are located in close proximity to one another, Mr. Johnson shares. If one shop gets busy and another shop has relatively few customers, the employees can shift from one location to another.

dashing displays
    With 4,000 square feet, The Thicket provides the greatest area for setting up an array of eye-catching displays. Mr. Johnson says that when he buys his merchandise in January for the following Christmas season, he tries to envision how the merchandise will be arranged in the shop. Most displays are arranged by color. He also keeps an eye out for distinctive products that will create impact.
    “We’ve always gone overboard with decorating, and we always have a tremendous amount of inventory. It’s not one of those stores where you’re going to come and see what you saw last year,” Mr. Johnson says. “We have a high turnover in our product, so there are always a lot of new things.”
    Large warehouses, one of which is across the street from the businesses, allow for plenty of storage when holiday merchandise arrives in the summer. They also allow the shops to carry a range of large permanent Christmas trees.
    Almost two dozen fully decorated trees were displayed last year at The Thicket. Seven more were at The Nest, all adorned in the shop’s signature gardeny theme, with lots of birds and nests. Customers could select and purchase ornaments directly from the trees.
    Permanent arrangements are among the popular items at The Thicket, and they are offered in a range of price points, from $20 to $500, to suit all budgets. Fresh arrangements, which average $50, are not strong sellers during the early November open house; however, they are featured in abundance at The Nest to give customers an idea of the types of arrangements they can order or pick up later in the season. Some of the most popular designs are novelties such as reindeer heads and Santa hats.
    One thing that distinguishes flowers at The Nest from those at other florists is that they are not refrigerated once delivered. In fact, the shop does not even own a floral cooler.
    “We’re really fortunate because we have two wholesalers that are just minutes from our store,” Mr. Johnson says. “One delivers twice a day and the other delivers four times a day. So we have the opportunity to have fresh flowers around six times a day.”
    This allows all product to be out and available for customers to see, feel and smell. And Mr. Johnson relates that the fragrance when customers walk into the shop reinforces the freshness of the flowers.
    “What works for one shop doesn’t always work for another shop, but it works great for us,” Mr. Johnson acknowledges. “And because we get fresh flowers in and they go out immediately, they really last.”
    Whether rolling out a red carpet, as the Johnsons have done for past open houses, or hiring a pilot to fly an airplane around town, The Thicket, The Nest and Branches have become known in the Springfield community not only for their fresh, distinctive product but also for their vibrant open houses. And Mr. Johnson plans to continue the parties well into the future.

  novelties create excitement

 
 


    Novelty arrangements have made a comeback in the floral industry, and The Nest features many eye-catching designs each Christmas season. “We do a lot of novelty arrangements for parties, and for open houses, we try to have a lot of fun novelty-type things,” owner Ron Johnson says. “We try to show people things they haven’t seen before because usually everybody in town is having their open houses at about the same time, and you just don’t want them to go from shop to shop and see the same arrangement.”
    Statuary throughout The Nest was adorned with fresh flowers, from floral garlands to Santa hats, for the 2007 holiday season. One of the most popular novelty arrangements was a reindeer head Mr. Johnson created by carving floral foam and covering it with spray chrysanthemums. Winterberry branches were used for the antlers, buttons for the eyes, chenille stems for the ears and a small round ornament for the nose. The design sold for $90.
    “People went crazy over the reindeer,” Mr. Johnson relates. “I ended up doing at least 30 of those for the Christmas season. I used one brick of floral foam standing and another brick of floral foam for the head, and it had a Lomey extender that was glued to a Lomey bowl at the bottom, so it was super-sturdy for delivery.”

 


 



 

You may contact Kelsey Smith by e-mail at ksmith@floristsreview.com or by phone at (800) 367-4708.

Photos by Debby Young Photography


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