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Entrepreneur Insight

Sunset Nursery: Tips to Improve Customer Service

March 27, 2017

The key to success of Sunset Nursery for 50+ years? Small-town feel customer service.

In the heart of one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, next to coffee shops, gourmet eateries, and stylish boutiques where hipsters and celebrities roam, stands a neighborhood institution. Sunset Nursery has remained the go-to plant nursery for aspiring green thumbs for decades, sprouting at its current Silver Lake location on Sunset Boulevard in the 1950s and growing ever since. Owner Dennis Kuga spent his childhood playing among the bougainvillea and potted plants. His father, a gardener, opened the nursery, and his mother manned the cash register. The key to the store’s longevity? Good old-fashioned customer service.

A study by Walker Information Inc., a business consulting firm, found that, by the year 2020, customer experience will be the key brand differentiator for businesses, surpassing price and even product. The study found that 86 percent of buyers are willing to pay more for a better customer experience.

Sunset Nursery, an East West Bank small business client, manages to provide a customer experience that not only has helped it to outlast many of his neighbors over the years, but also to thrive in the age of Yelp, where the nursery has a 4.4-star rating. Kuga talks about the key elements to his customer service.

Two people looking at plants at the nursery garden in Sunset Nursery
Sunset Nursery in Silver Lake has been around since the 1950s.
"By the year 2020, customer experience will be the key brand differentiator for businesses."

Evolve with the times

The independent nursery is an endangered species. Kuga estimates there were 20 times as many nurseries in Southern California, and most of them have closed over the years due to rising land values and competition from big-box stores.

Kuga says the ability to quickly change and evolve to suit customer needs, and tailor the customer experience is crucial. In the ‘50s, the Silver Lake neighborhood was composed of mostly middle-class families. By the ‘90s, gentrification brought in young artists, musicians and other creatives.

“We’ve had to evolve with the neighborhood and the clientele moving into the area,” Kuga says. “Recently, there has been a big push for organics and vegetables, so we specialize in that. We have one of the largest seed selections in California, and that has catered to our new type of customer.”

Succulents and drought-tolerant plants have also become popular. The nursery has limited space—it’s on less than a quarter of an acre—so Kuga has had to make efficient use of the land. The nursery carries thousands of varieties of plants and changes its lineup from week-to-week. That means maintaining a laser focus on what customers want by staying in touch with them.

“We talk with the customers, and we’re constantly evolving to fit their need. We’ll carry different items, bring in new items, and delete old items. And that’s been the key to our success,” Kuga says.

"We talk with the customers and we’re constantly evolving to fit their need."

- Dennis Kuga

 Dennis Kuga, the owner of Sunset Nursery, in talking to a customer in the nursery garden
The key to the longevity of Sunset Nursery is good old customer service

Provide deep expertise for customer loyalty

Some of Sunset Nursery’s employees have worked there for more than 30 years, possess horticulture degrees and decades of hands-on experience. That means the expertise they have is an asset that sets them apart from the chain stores.

“From bugs, to plant diseases, we’ve seen it all and are able to help customers solve problems,” Kuga says. “So we will counsel them on how to take care of that particular plant. And of course we want them to be successful, and come back and buy others.”

Free services and personal relationships

The willingness to share that knowledge with clients generously is also part of the business model. Since many of their new customers are young and may never have owned a plant before, going to a nursery is a new experience. Kuga says the staffers consider themselves to be teachers.

“A lot of times customers will just come in, and we’ll school them on how to take care of a particular plant. We won’t sell them anything; they will just come in asking for advice. We’re more than happy to provide that personalized customer service,” he says.

Austin Delgoff, a horticulturalist at Sunset Nursery, says one of the joys of working at a nursery is that you start to develop long-term relationships and trust with customers. “It’s always good to see them—it’s like an old friend showing up,” Delgoff says.

A horticulturalist making a custom plant pot in Sunset Nursery
A horticulturalist making a custom plant pot
"We won’t sell them anything; they will just come in asking for advice."

- Dennis Kuga

Over the years, taking the time and energy to provide small-town customer service in the big city has proven to be a good strategy. One of the nursery’s signature services is custom potting of the plants customers buy. This used to be something Kuga charged for in the past, but in the last four years he decided to offer it for free.

“It seems the newer generation is pretty naive about plants and planting, and feels more comfortable if we do it,” Kuga says. “We feel this customer service and the goodwill it generates far outweighs the costs.”

Maintain liquidity

One of the ways that Sunset Nursery has been able to survive the ups and downs of the economy is the ability to maintain liquidity in down times. “Microloans are a good source of working capital for ongoing business opportunities,” says Jean Chan, customer service lead at East West Bank’s Silver Lake branch. To anticipate emergencies, Kuga has a small business checking account and microloan from East West Bank as a rainy day hedge against unexpected emergencies.

“I think every business needs to have some type of rainy day fund ‘cause you can never know what’s going to happen,” Kuga says. “For a nursery business, a rainy day is a very appropriate term because when it rains, we don’t have much business. So when it rains a lot, you need to have a little bit of help.”

He talks more about that here:

Kuga’s son Greg is now interested in continuing the legacy of the nursery. So, while independent nurseries continue their fight to keep their doors open, Sunset Nursery is looking to uphold its independence for the next generation.

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