An occasional ‘thank you’ might have kept this nursery in business

As I was driving along Freeport Boulevard in Sacramento yesterday, I passed the blocklong ghost of Capital Nursery. The once-thriving showcase that had provided beautiful flowers, trees and shrubs for local gardens since 1936 went out of business in 2012. The parking lot in front of the 9-acre site, which used to be jammed-packed on summer days, sits empty and forlorn.

 I felt a wave of satisfaction. Who says the high and mighty don’t get their comeuppance? Here was a visible reminder of what happens when retailers don’t bother say “thank you” to loyal customers. Here’s what happens when you refuse to help a 50-year-old woman carry a 15-gallon shrub to her car on a blistering hot day.

That’s my emotionally self-serving explanation for Capital Nursery’s demise. News accounts offered different ones. A Sacrament Bee story blamed the closure of Capital’s flagship store, along with nurseries in Elk Grove and Citrus Heights, on the recession, the stagnant housing market that undercut demand for landscaping services, fierce competition from big-box stores and bargain-conscious consumers giving up service for savings. Others news accounts echoed these reasons and spoke of local gardeners’ love of Capital Nursery and their reliance on its experts to explain why the leaves on their camellias were turning yellow and peach tree failing to bear fruit.

When I became a homeowner in the  early1980s, a co-worker at the Bee directed me to Capital Nursery, only a mile away. She raved about the selection and the service. “If you live in Land Park and Curtis Park, you have to go there,” she said in no-nonsense voice.

Well, I certainly wanted to go with the in-crowd, even I couldn’t afford to live in either of these upscale neighborhoods. I had bought an 1,100 square-foot-house on the fringes of Land Park respectability, just south of the city cemetery and the low-income housing projects off Broadway. The house was burglarized twice in my seven years there, but almost doubled in value. That opened the door to Land Park proper and another decade of shopping at Capital Nursery.

“Shopping” may not be the proper term. That sounds too much like an egalitarian exchange between buyer and seller. The master gardeners always made me wait a long time before delivering their pompous explanations for what ailed my plants, while the sale staff delighted in conversations with each other and seemed to expect a thank-you for allowing me to spend a few hundred bucks there.

Their ingratitude fueled a resentment in me that finally boiled over on a hot June afternoon when I was trying to complete a yard project. I had bought a pricey assortment of shrubs in the morning and worked for hours planting them. Late in the afternoon, I asked my wife to make a run to the nursery to buy a 15-gallon shrub that I needed. She returned hot, sweaty and irritated. She said the clerk had told her rather curtly they were too busy to give her a hand while not even bothering to thank her for the purchase.

Kaboom! I dropped everything and drove to the nursery. I found the culprit and, in front of a line of ever-so-humble buyers, berated him for being a low-life creep and threatened all manner of bodily harm. He took my outburst in silence as though this were just another cross he had to bear from an ill-mannered, ungrateful customer.

I vowed then that I would never again shop at Capital Nursery. I began driving seven miles to Green Acres Nursery, which had a fine selection, a relaxed atmosphere, helpful experts and checkout clerks who said “thank you” and sounded as though they meant it. The drive time was well worth the satisfaction I derived from thumbing my nose at Capital Nursery and giving my business to Green Acres.

I like to think Capital’s demise really resulted from the cumulated resentment of hundreds of customers who finally got tired of being treated like dirt. It would be instructive to other retailers, as would the continued success of Green Acres, whose experts and sales staff seem as attentive and gracious as always.

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5 Responses to An occasional ‘thank you’ might have kept this nursery in business

  1. Angela Pratt says:

    Interesting piece. As a retail nursery employee and longtime customer at Sunrise, Freeport and Elk Grove Capital nurseries, I have had varying customer service experiences each time and each store had a different vibe. I have experienced indifferent sales staff at the Freeport Blvd. store, but I was also helped by really friendly people other times. I have seen the place full and lush, with well-tended plants, and I have seen it look sparse and neglected.

    Indifference and neglect from clerks at the registers and sales staff on the floor is a likely symptom of indifference toward staff by management and owners. A happy employee often makes for a happy customer service experience. Word on the street from employees and others in the business was that they didn’t compensate their workers adequately and that there was little room for advancement in the company.

    I’m not excusing poor customer service, but I wouldn’t entirely blame the clerks. I always chuckle when I see a critical Yelp review about the nursery where I work. Overall, the reviews are very positive, but when I read comments like “There is no one at the register to ring you up.” or “Don’t expect to have your questions answered” followed by comments about the “… extremely knowledgeable and friendly employees…”, I know it all has to do with how well-staffed or busy we were on a particular day. Maybe just be happy Capital always had someone at the registers; smaller nurseries sometimes eschew that luxury in order to water or answer phones or put away an order. We actually have a “Ring bell for service.” sign. Ding. “Hello?” Ding. “Hello?” 😉

    I liked Capital. The Sunrise store had an amazing selection of 4″ and gallon perennials, organic veggie starts and amiable, knowledgeable staff. All stores shined in the tree and shrub department… and the roses! Elk Grove was worth the drive for me now and then just to bask in its lovely oak-studded setting. You could always find something a little different at each store. Too bad they didn’t scale down during the recession and at least try to hang onto the flagship Freeport Blvd. store. It’s a Raley’s now, right?

    • Paul Clegg says:

      Thanks for your insights, Angela. Raley’s bought the property, and there was speculation the chain would build a new supermarket on the site. Nothing so far.

  2. JoAnn Anglin says:

    My experiences at Capital Nursery were also pretty good, but I wondered if they had committed too many resources to commercial customers before the construction fail of the Recession. I especially loved taking the grandsons to a planting workshop for kids one Easter. I also got occasional supplies at Target on Broadway and was sorry to see all the Targets swap out plants for the food business, which I refuse to buy there.

  3. Carol Bogart says:

    I really miss Capital Nursery. It had a more eclectic selection in both plants and garden stuff (such as curved bamboo supports and cool birdbaths) than you find in chains, and from the youngest clerk to the most seasoned expert, each was always helpful. My only complaint was the sticker shock in the gift shop, offset by its incredible selection of seeds. One time when I was checking out a lady came in with her dog. The staff knew both by name. Capital Nursery was a springtime tradition I looked forward to all year, and always worth the trip, even though I live in West Sacramento. They’d even found a lilac that does well in California! I suspect what killed it were the same factors that have killed so many mom&pops — cheaper prices and convenience at ‘big box’ nurseries like Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart. In West Sac, the garden departments at Target & Ace Hardware also went out of business.

    • Paul Clegg says:

      Carol, Perhaps the improving economy will encourage someone to open a good nursery closer to downtown Sac.

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