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VOL. 38 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 9, 2014

Local nurseries take fight to big-box stores using variety, quality, social media help level playing field

By Joe Morris

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Warmer weather has arrived, and weekend gardeners have sprung forth along with the roses, peonies and allergies.

That means big business for area lawn and garden centers, many of which are decades-old family concerns that, unlike other small businesses, have found ways to level the playing field with their big-box competitors.

Early on, these operators will tell you, they realized it couldn’t be about price. From tomato plants to flats of impatiens, the chains’ national buying power meant that they could always undercut the per-item price a single outlet needs to charge to make any kind of profit.

So the locals ramped up their already-solid customer service, began to use social media to grow their loyal fan base and began dabbling in everything from birdbaths to custom-built container gardens in order to become a lifestyle destination as well as garden and landscaping center.

Free advice, inspiration

For Moore & Moore, the goal has been to offer as much variety as possible when it comes to plants that fare well in Middle Tennessee, but also make personal connections by giving gardening advice and inspiration for free.

“We can’t compete with Home Depot on price, but we’re going to go right up against them on value,’ says Duncan Borders, the grandson of business founders John and Nell Moore, who along with their son Paul opened up shop in 1980.

Service, expertise and plants that do well in our area’s soil and climate separate Moore & Moore from the big retailers, owner Duncan Borders says.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

“We create a different experience for our shoppers. They may pay more here, but they’re going to get better service and higher-quality plants. They also know that our people are experts, and they’re happy to spend time with you if you’ve got questions.”

Moore & Moore operated out of Belle Meade for 18 years, before relocating to Bellevue.

In recent years, Borders has added a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse to the site, as well as adding garden and home décor lines. Next up will be a more robust social-media presence, he says, to help solidify his customer base.

“We’ve just hired someone to coordinate that for us, because we have very loyal customers and they pay attention to the things we email out and post on Facebook.

“They’re interested in what we have to offer them, so we want to do that in as many ways as possible. We’ve got that personal touch, and we’ve got stories, so that’s how we’re going to continue to engage people.”

That will include talking up new plant varieties, something else he says smaller shops also can do better than chain stores.

“Our buyers are gardeners themselves, and they are interested in new and upcoming plants, things that will do well here,” Borders says.

Capitol Hill looms in the background as Saturday morning shoppers wander the offerings of Gardens of Babylon in Nashville’s Farmers Market.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

“We know what’s suitable for around here. We’re a garden center — that’s all we do. We offer potting services and things that they don’t, but we also are selling a lifestyle that they are not.”

Toxic-free gardening

Many visitors to the Nashville Farmers Market usually make their way to the south end to find the Gardens of Babylon complex.

The two greenhouses and outdoor areas serve as a base of operations for the Kerske family, which opened an East Nashville landscaping business in 2003 and eventually moved to the market location to expand seasonal and year-round plant offerings, gardening supplies and decorative items.

“I’m an avid gardener myself, and we thought it would be a great business,” says Mark Kerske, who runs the operation along with sons Marcus and Matt.

“We opened in East Nashville just as that area was starting to blossom. After two years we had the opportunity to move to the Market, which was a great location. My sons were in college, and eventually they joined me in the company.”

Like Borders, Kerske says that price takes a backseat to service when it comes to going up against his larger competitors.

Promotion is a big part of Bates’ success. Its staff uses social media, a weekly radio show, TV appearances and a rewards program to increase visibility.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

“We focus on gardening that’s toxic free, and that’s very important to us,” he says. “They have 2,000 stores, and we have one, so we know that service is critical for us. We just feel like everybody deserves as much of our attention as possible, and we also want to get them off on the right foot when it comes to gardening.”

Attending trade shows and doing necessary homework means the Kerske clan stays on top of trends, be those in new plants or a new type of fountain that backyard-landscape enthusiast are clamoring for. That, in turn, helps drive traffic.

“We’re always looking for that new and exciting product,” Kerske says. “But we also stick to the basics, like herbs. They are hugely popularly now, because people can put them in a small garden, or a container.

“We also encourage them in landscaping, so that you have an edible as well as beautiful space.”

Landscaping in general is a prime offering at Gardens of Babylon, with the garden center itself operating as a complementary service, Kerske says.

Plants at Bates and other independent nurseries in the area centers are bred to local conditions.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

“We have a lot of clients who will come here to pick things out, but they don’t have the time or expertise to actually put it all in,” he explains. “They want a little bit of ‘do it yourself,’ but they also want our help if their plans start to get elaborate.

“That’s what makes us unique – we have our garden center, but we also design, install and maintain your garden and landscape. We even have a personal-farmer service, where we’ll put your vegetable garden in, as well as herbs and things like blueberry bushes, and teach you how to grow your own food sustainably without the use of chemicals.”

‘Crepe murder’ and social media

That kind of hands-on expertise is also the stock in trade at Bates Nursery, which was opened by Bessie and Byron Bates in 1932.

From a $200 investment on land at 26th and Charlotte, the Bates grew their business to a Gallatin Road site and a separate floral business, then by the late 1950s had set up shop on Whites Creek Pike, where the nursery still operates today.

The Bates in charge of things now is David, who grew up in and around the business, and who understands the value of expertise and promotion.

From a rewards program to a weekly blog to radio and television appearances, he and his staff work to keep the family name in front of gardeners in Middle Tennessee, and via social media, the rest of the world.

“We spend a lot of time looking for content that we can put forth in order to make our website and other social media efforts compelling and interesting,” Bates says.

“We want those readers to see the products and services we offer, but also to ask us questions. We’ve found a lot of success on Facebook, but our Twitter following is global – we have more than 81,000 followers, and they’re in almost every country.”

The Bates brand extends to a line of mulch and soil products sold by the bag or by the truckload, but also to that hands-on interaction that defines the smaller gardening operation.

“We try to pass along gardening tidbits, both online and in person,” Bates says. “That could be something we find interesting in a type of plant, or my talking about ‘crepe murder,’ which is cutting back your crepe myrtles too heavily. We work hard to be different.”

He also is quick to say that price is the least of his worries when it comes to big-box showdowns.

“You have to figure out what you can do, what you can provide, that they cannot,” he says. “Given that we only do horticulture, and we do it all year long, we’re not going to compete with them in plumbing or wood siding.

“We have worked hard to become a place where people know they can get good gardening information, as well as plants and supplies.

“Our value is not the price in what we offer for sale, but in the value we add. They may be cheaper, but it’s going to be a decidedly lesser plant.

“And they’re not going to be able to tell you if it’ll work in your hard soil or not. Here, we want people to bring in pictures of their spot so we can help them find the right plants.

If you’re not wasting valuable time digging holes and replacing things, you’re going to remember who helped you save that time and money. That creates loyalty, and also helps us build those personal relationships.”

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