90 years and counting

Features - THE TOP 100 | No. 47 Walter Andersen Nursery

The San Diego-based garden center has built customer loyalty through service, programs and by listening to their ideas.

September 8, 2017

Many customers bring their kids to see the railroad garden at Walter Andersen Nursery.

Walter Andersen Nursery celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2018, continuing a legacy started by Walter Andersen Sr. and passed along to his son, Walter Jr. While no longer the landscaping, maintenance and garden service business of its origins, the San Diego-area nursery has parlayed its robust reputation in plant sales into two bustling locations and a repeat customer base that the younger Andersen expects to keep flourishing well into the future.

Walter Andersen Jr. and his son, Ken Andersen

Q: What plants and products are popular with customers in the area?
A: We sell lots of cacti and succulents, which was spiked by the drought in California over the last four or five years. People wanted to replace their ornamentals with cacti and other drought-tolerant plants. Lawns are greening up now, so customers are going back to ornamental landscape plants like Indian hawthorn. We also sell amazing amounts of butterfly bush that come with yellow or orange flowers. Five or six years ago, we started an organic and chemical section and sell insecticides, fungicides and fertilizer.

Q: What is your “hedge fund” loyalty program?
A: Customers can redeem “hedge fund” points in later visits, so if they buy $100 worth of plant materials, they have a $5 fund for the next time they come in. We get 20 to 100 new customers to sign up every week just at the San Diego store. Customers have nothing to lose except 90 seconds to fill out a simple card, and the cards are then entered into the computer. From then on, when customers check out, they just give their phone number and the computer automatically applies the hedge fund discount as a partial payment on that purchase if they have enough points to qualify. A statement in the agreement says the hedge funds expire in three months, but we seldom enforce that. But the customer thinking, “I need to go back before the funds expire” hopefully gets them in again sooner.

Walter Andersen Nursery provides planting tips in classes and online tutorial videos.

Q: Where did you get the idea for the garden railroad you have on-site?
A: It started when we opened our Poway store and had people coming in who were buying miniature trees to landscape their garden railroads. We had one guy who said he’d help us build one, and now we have a huge outdoor railroad with waterfalls, a lake and several switches that allow us to run two or three trains at a time. Customers bring their kids to the nursery to see it. We get quite a few comments about how neat it is.

Various cacti and succulents, as well as decorative landscape plants, are popular with Walter Andersen Nursery customers.

Q: In what ways do you market yourself as an expert in the industry?
A: We have employees who know plants and are able to suggest products that control whatever malady a plant may have. We also have classes on planting and feeding roses, and in the winter we have rose pruning classes. If people can’t make a class, we have videos on our website that answer all their questions. At a big box store, you may have a guy working in the nursery who was in the paint department last week. Our employees are plant lovers and have their own gardens at home.

Q: What is the biggest challenge your nursery faces, and how are you working to overcome that challenge?
A: The motivation is to survive. I can’t tell you how many nurseries have disappeared over the last 25 years. Big box stores are strong competition, but we have more personalized customer service, different varieties of plants and the kind of information that gives our customers the confidence that their plants will survive.