When it comes to real estate, the mantra is "location, location, location." When it comes to home and garden improvements, it seems to be "customer service, customer service, customer service."
Scenic Nursery, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this weekend, is among a handful of long-running, locally owned nurseries and hardware retailers that have learned how to survive and even thrive in the age of the big-box store.
Since opening in its location across from Dry Creek in 1949, Scenic has changed hands only once, from original owners Sid and Mary Rogers to their son and current owner, Jim Rogers.
The 65-year-old, who is instantly recognizable by his Greek fisherman's cap, said succeeding as a retail nursery is about deserving his customers' business.
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"I have the same attitude my parents had about taking care of our customers," Rogers said. "I would rather lose a customer than sell the wrong thing to someone."
It is a sentiment echoed by the Central Valley's independently owned retail nurseries and home improvement stores.
Ken Walker, vice president and general manager of Modesto's American Lumber, said he and his staff -- some of whom have worked for the company for close to 30 years -- strive to get to know their customers.
"We get a lot of people coming in who say they can't get the service or the knowledge at the big-box store," Walker said about the 86-year-old establishment. "We pride ourselves in being a familiar face and having the knowledge to help people."
Like businesses of all sorts and sizes, American Lumber has had to cut back recently because of the economy. Walker said the company had to let four people go in February and instituted a furlough program for its 20 remaining employees.
"The way we've been able to survive is that we're fortunate our business has a pretty well diversified customer base," he said. "We've also been conservative on inventory and buying. We're not buying the large volumes anymore. A rail car is now a truckload."
Focus on service and quality
At Morris Nursery in Riverbank, adjustments have been made to make the store as attractive and customer friendly as possible.
Nursery manager Dave Provost said the key is to not pretend to be a Home Depot, Lowe's or some other big-box chain. Instead, he said, a business should simply do what it does best.
"We're not trying, in our business, to compete with them on any direct level," Provost said. "Initially we had a lot of customers who would ask, 'Do you price match?' and things like that. We don't try to compete with them on price level. What we do is offer superior service and a better quality of material."
While others are scaling back or specializing in certain areas, some of these independent business are expanding.
Frantz Wholesale Nursery in Hickman is jumping into the retail side of the business. Opened in the '70s, the nursery only sold wholesale to landscapers and other professionals. But in April the Frantz Garden Center opened and began selling directly to the public.
The decision to make the move into the retail market was made two years ago, when the economy was still booming, said Garden Center manager Nathan Heinrich.
Despite the downturn, Heinrich is optimistic about the future of the business and its potential for growth. "We're the only grower in the area that sells directly to the public. So prices can be lower, because we cut the middleman out," he said.
The center sells everything from sod, rocks and trees to shrubs and more than 500 kinds of perennials and other plants. As growers first and foremost, Heinrich said his staff members are happy to help customers with their gardening dilemmas.
"We do a lot of hand-holding. Just because we live and breathe this business and these plants and we understand it really well, we get a lot of people who come in and it's not their area of expertise," he said.
"We get a lot of customers who take plants home and then call us just frantic. They say they left the plant out, that the leaves are crispy and ask, 'What do I do?' The fact that we are here and answer the phone, that's good, too."
It's that attention to individual needs and knowledge of the product that Scenic Nursery owner Rogers said has helped his business over its 60 years. He said part of his success is having staff who share that philosophy.
Although started by his parents, Rogers said neither of them had a particularly green thumb -- his father was in the merchant marine and sold stockings, among other jobs.
Scenic Nursery initially sold plants, paint and feed. The paint and feed quickly gave way to the nursery business. Over the years, it has added a landscaping design and service business, which continues today with its Garden Center.
The nursery, which was at the edge of town when it opened, is an institution along Scenic Drive. The original building remains, although it has been refurbished and moved to a different location on the site.
A small fleet of reassuringly old-fashioned red Radio Flyer wagons greets customers, and once in the nursery, friendly, colorful rows of plants invite them to stay.
Rogers, who began helping in the management of the nursery in the 1970s, said he had considered switching to larger flatbed carts. Studies have shown customers buy more with larger, flatter carts. But he said that the nursery's adherence to tradition is part of what its loyal, often multi-generational customers enjoy.
"People come here and remember being pulled around in the Radio Flyers when they were kids," Rogers said. "Anybody who has been in the retail business as long as we have, that's part of what keeps you there: your friends and the customers."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@ modbee. com or 578-2284.