36: Celebrating 130 Years in Business with Greer’s Home Furnishings

Written by Rob Stott

August 25, 2020

Greer’s Home Furnishings first opened its doors in Loudon, Tennessee, in August of 1890. As the local retailer celebrates a major milestone, we caught up with three generations of the family-owned operation — which remains in the Greer lineage.

Rob Stott: All right. We’re back on the Independent Thinking Podcast and really excited, a really cool opportunity here to chat with a member who’s celebrating a really big milestone. And when I say really big, more than a century and a quarter-long milestone of being in business. 130 years for Greer’s Home Furnishings down there in Loudon, Tennessee. Correct me, Mr. Bo Carey. Is it Loudon?

Bo Carey: Loudon, Tennessee.

Rob Stott: All right. Which I’ve come to learn is near a town, I’m in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there’s a Philadelphia down your way as well, right?

Bo Carey: That’s correct.

Rob Stott: Not too far.

Bo Carey: And I guess it’s unique. Our Scotch Irish ancestors came down here from Pennsylvania, from the valleys of Pennsylvania.

Rob Stott: We’ve got a little bit of a connection there. So that’s pretty cool. But I appreciate you. We’ve got you, the owner of Greer’s Home Furnishings, on. And we also have here today your son, John, and then your father, Ham, as well. So three generations of the five generations of Greers joining us for this podcast. So I appreciate you guys taking the time and chatting with me today.

Bo Carey: We’re excited about highlighting our relationship with Nationwide.

Rob Stott: That’s a lot of fun. And certainly, want to get started with you. Talk about what is business-like for you today down there at Greer’s? We’ll get into, here in a little bit, the history and how things have changed. But if someone walks into Greer’s today, what would they find as they come into your store?

Bo Carey: Well, they would see the shell of an old building that’s almost 130 years old, but that’s gone through a lot of change. And obviously, they would see a pretty good selection of name brand furniture and of mattresses and grills. So probably 30% bedding and 70% furniture. But yeah, they would also see the old portraits of the founders, five generations worth. They would see some of the mementos from the past. We have a little bit of a museum look in here to highlight our past. But for the most part, we’re just trying to sell name brand furniture at very competitive prices and take care of our local customers.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And I know, like I said, cool to have three of those generations on right now. But that’s a testament, I think. You think about being family-owned, I can’t think of … There’s obviously a lot of Nationwide members and I’ve talked to quite a few for this podcast. I think this is the first fifth-generation family-owned business that I’ve been able to talk to. So, I mean, to that point, 130 years, what do you think has been the key to that sustained success for Greer’s?

Bo Carey: That’s easy. We have always changed. We’ve always changed with the times. And this company survived the Great Depression, two world wars, lots of financial downturns, and everything from nature crises to fires and everything else. And we’ve survived, but it’s mostly because my ancestors have known to change with the times and to sort of be ahead of the times, but also to take advantage of what we have that makes us different from the big boxes and from the big chain stores. And that involves, I think, combining. Today, our big change is combining our low overhead, because my great-grandfather paid for this building 100 years ago, with our excellent opportunity to purchase, through Nationwide, product at very good competitive wholesale prices. So it’s been a pretty good combination, especially here in 2020.

Rob Stott: Yeah. You mentioned the fact that obviously changing a lot and having to adapt, a lot of the challenges you’ve had to overcome. And I know certainly what I’ve come to learn in the year, almost a year, of doing this podcast is just the different types of challenges that a small-town retailer has to face. But especially, I was going to ask about this a little later, but maybe kind of a nice segue into it. The biggest challenge of late I think is the term that everyone’s tired of hearing of, but that’s the whole COVID-19 and everything that’s been happening these past few months with that. So I wanted to ask, what’s business been like for you guys during this time and how have you managed over that time?

Bo Carey: Well, yeah, late March and throughout April were really tough. We stayed open. We didn’t close a single day. And we did keep all of our staff on a full schedule. We never laid anybody off and were able to do that. We got to do a lot of cleaning in the store and sanitizing, but we kept everybody doing something and nobody had to go home. But our volume suffered in the spring, but it’s been, like many stores, it’s been excellent over the past two or three months. We’re really excited about, we’ve had actually, 56% growth in June and July, 56% growth. And May was just a little bit less than that, still about 51%. So the last three months have just been excellent and we’re experiencing good traffic. And again, it’s going right well. We’re anticipating the whole second half to continue to show excellent growth over last year.

Rob Stott: What have interactions been like with customers? I mean, because the crazy thing is I think about walking around the streets again, I feel like I’m flexing the fact that I live in Philadelphia, not trying to do that at all, but the big town, it’s obviously a different vibe. You don’t know people as intimately as in a small town like where you are. So I mean, those personal relationships I know were a lot more … They carry a lot of weight in a smaller town. So I mean, how have, or have they, the interactions with customers changed? And what’s that been like adjusting during this COVID time?

Bo Carey: Well, of course, we use web fronts, RWS, which is a partner of Nationwide, for our website. And they’ve come with ways that we can do live chat with our customers without coming to the store. We’ve upgraded what we are promoting on the website. We’ve done a lot of the Google advertising as we’ve been advised at the PrimeTime meetings and learned through the educational opportunities how to take advantage of our IT. And as well as Google ads, Google advertising, pushing people to our website. So we’ve done a whole lot of work without people coming in the store.

We facilitated those that want to do the curbside pickups. We’ve done deliveries that are safe by dropping it off on their porch or in their garage. And of course, our drivers are wearing masks and gloves and foot protectors when they go in the home. I don’t know if that’s what you meant, but that’s been comforting to our customers, as well as the measures that we take. When people come in our store, there’s hand sanitizer, there’s actual disposable masks right there at the door for them to put on if they didn’t bring one. And so that’s all seemed to work. And as I said, thanks to our extra measures and trying to price ourselves below the big city product, we’ve been experiencing very good volume increases over the past three months.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome. And I mean, certainly, I’m sure just in those day to day interactions, customers, I’m sure, have come across as appreciative and the response is, for the most part, I imagine, positive in sort of the steps and measures you’re taking to protect not just them, but also your employees as well.

Bo Carey: That’s correct. Overwhelmingly so. Whereas we expected some people to, way back in the spring, to be critical that we were actually open for business, but we didn’t seem to hear that. We expected some people to be a little skittish about coming into the store. But I think part of that is that we have a pretty big store. So social distancing is very easy to do here. Whereas in the big box stores, sometimes there are crowds. So in a small-town environment, we’re able to offer a very safe, uncrowded environment to shop in.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. So I want to pivot a little bit. I’ve had my fair share of COVID talks. I don’t want to spend too much time on it. So-

Bo Carey: Let me add to that quickly.

Rob Stott: Yeah, yeah.

Bo Carey: We are very appreciative of the Zoom meetings and the conference calls that Nationwide provided, not only to help us take advantage of the PPP loan and to make sure we did it right but also to some of the little mini-sessions with some of our suppliers that gave some stimulus purchases that we would have had at the High Point market, those were facilitated and offered by the Nationwide group. And that’s been very helpful in making sure that we can survive and take advantage of all the programs that are available to us, including what the government’s offering. So that’s been a plus and I’m very appreciative of that.

Rob Stott: Always good to hear that. And no problem adding a couple more seconds of COVID talk if it’s about how you’re able to pat ourselves on the back now. But the fact that it’s always good to hear that members are able to benefit from those things. Because I know, not me personally, but the guys that are doing a lot of the behind the scenes work to pull those programs together and doing things to help members out is awesome to hear that it’s paying off. But one thing I do want to ask, we’ll talk to your dad in a little bit here, but about the 130th anniversary. I mean, it’s a big-time for you guys. You have some big stuff planned. So I just wanted to get your thoughts quickly, before turning to him, about what it means to you to hear that 130 years and a little bit about what you’ve got planned.

Bo Carey: Sure. We have done a little research. We are the oldest furniture and mattress store in the state of Tennessee. And although my name is not Greer, my mother was a Greer. And so we are, it’s the same direct generational that we’ve passed down straight through. It was my great-grandfather that started the business in 1890. And we’re excited about it. It is an honor. Our city mayor and county mayor will be doing some things later in August at the end of the month to sort of make it a special day when we have a dedication. And our suppliers have come through with some things that we can give away and door prizes, as well as a big shopping spree is our grand prize that we’ll give away on Labor Day. All those things are nice, but I think to your question, the real thing is being able be in business this long and to still be prosperous and providing this kind of products and services to our community.

Rob Stott: Oh, but that was a lot of great stuff. And now I want to turn a little bit to your dad, Mr. Ham Carey, talk a little bit about the history. And Ham, first thing I wanted to ask was just about the 130 years of this business, I know a lot has changed. You guys started, it’s Greer’s Home Furnishings, but was it always home furnishings? What was the business like at the start up until when you got involved?

Ham Carey: When it started in 1890, Grandpa Greer, my wife’s grandfather, that’s Bo’s great grandfather, he and another man started a little hardware store right up the street in our little town. Our little town now is, it’s still about 4,200, but back then it might’ve been 200 or 300. It was strictly an old-time hardware store. They sold pots and pans and hammers and nails and saws and cookstove heaters and things like that, cross-cut saws for the farmers, and plows and so forth. But yes, it’s evolved a long way. When I got here in 1954, which was just after Bo was born, we still had a big hardware business, including John Deere tractors and building materials, Magnavox television sets, Frigidaire appliances, we’ve been in Frigidaire since 1923 or 1924 or 1925. And furniture had just been added a little before that, mainly on the second floor because we didn’t have room where all the hardware was.

So it’s evolved a big, big step. And oh, it’s been about 20 years ago, Bo was able to sell the hardware. We were True Value Hardware at that time, but he was able to put it in a different building. And fortunately, somebody came along, bought it, building and hardware stock and everything. So then it evolved down to appliances and furniture. And because of some big boxes, he drifted out on trying to sell appliances and just got into home furnishing. There are big furniture stores now, of course, but they’re not things like Home Depot and Walmart that are working on some other things he had. We were told many years ago that when Walmart comes to town, there’ll be about six, five, or six ma and pa stores that go out of business. Well, we haven’t gone out of business. Well, we have a Walmart seven miles away. We hadn’t gone out of business, but we have gotten out of a lot of things that were very competitive with Walmart. I hope I’m not rambling too much.

Rob Stott: No, no. I was going to say, that’s awesome to hear that kind of history. And one thing I want to ask you sort of to your last point about those big boxes coming in, what do you think has been the key differentiator for you guys as to why you’re able to still succeed even though you’ve got those big box stores just a few miles away?

Ham Carey: I wouldn’t give a piece of advice that should apply to everybody, all of Nationwide’s customers, but through the years, I think the big deal has been that we have provided reasonable materials, reasonable items at reasonable prices through the years and have taken care of our customers. If we sold a chair or mattress to the fellow down the street and if he didn’t like it, he personally would be hollering at me in church Sunday. In a small community situation, and I used to know about everybody in town, you wanted to be kind to your neighbors. So you weren’t out to do something that was really under the counter, not anything bad. We’ve always, and my father-in-law and uncle before me told me that, “Say the right thing,” he said, “and back up your word. Be as solid as your word.” And that means people 20 years from now will remember what they told you 20 years ago or what you said. So it’s a matter of being straight and honest, I think, is what’s kept this business. And there are some others around the country like us, yes.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And I know Bo had mentioned, obviously, he’s the man at the business right now and kind of took it over. But you’ve been retired for a little bit. But this is a big month, this August event, 130 years in business. Kind of enticed you to come back and help out a little bit with this anniversary celebration. So I just wanted to kind of get your thoughts on what you hope to accomplish this month, what it means to you really, and kind of what you guys have planned.


Ham Carey: Well, it means a lot to me that we’re still here at 130 because it was, gosh, when I was here in ’54, that was just 65 years in business. We celebrated that 65 years big-time back then. And I’m not going to be able to do anything this time except stand around and smile, but I’ll try to help in whatever way we can on it. But that’s not anything concrete. But anyway. And here’s another thing. Most of the people I knew as customers 50 years ago, where do you think they are? They’re gone.

Rob Stott: Right, right.

Ham Carey: So that’s a big detriment, from my angle anyway, that I won’t see many of my old customers because they’re just not here. But a few show up. And I did notice in our paper this morning that a fella had died that’d been the police chief 50 years ago when I was on city council. So old friends do pass, but I’m still a mighty good friend, called a personal friend of the police chief here in town, called him by his nickname, Bear. And I’m, in like manner, a real good friend of the sheriff here in town. They both grew up with Bo and his brothers. So that gives us some family touch. But that’s not what you need to get at, I know.

Rob Stott: Hey, no, I mean, it kind of goes to show though, just how different. I’m talking to you, I’m sitting a stone’s throw from Philadelphia, a town of several million out here on the east coast.

Ham Carey: Yeah, a little town. Yeah.

Rob Stott: Yeah, right? Just a little town. As opposed to, I mean, I think you can go a couple square blocks around my neighborhood and in the suburbs here and still maybe find more people than are in a town like where you guys are, which is crazy to think about. But I mean, it’s just such a different way to operate as not even just a local resident, but someone in retail and just how much that means to have a store and be in a community like that.

Ham Carey: I’ve enjoyed being in a small community. I was born and raised in Memphis, which is big, big, big, and overflowing. But I’ve been here, as I say, since ’54. And I’ve enjoyed the small community and how wonderful it’s been when I did know everybody. And I look at the picture of the high school football team and I used to know everybody’s daddy that was on that team. Let me throw out something else you mentioned about that little town of seven million. Is that what it is, Philadelphia?

Rob Stott: Yeah. Yep.

Ham Carey: Well, we’re six miles from Philadelphia. Did you know that?

Rob Stott: I did. There is a Philadelphia, Tennessee.

Ham Carey: Right down the road.

Rob Stott: A little bit different, a little bit different. Is it a big sports town?

Ham Carey: No. Philadelphia’s a nothing town. It’s used to have a hosiery mill and it’s been long. It still has a post office and still has a place where the railroad depot was, but it’s long gone. The train doesn’t even slow down going through that now.

Rob Stott: Hey, I could say the same about the SEPTA trains up here and how they don’t slow down either going through the station. I appreciate all that awesome info and history about Greer’s and kind of getting your perspective. It’s really, really cool to hear all that. But moving over to your grandson, John. John, a fifth-generation is really cool. I mentioned it a couple of times now, but the fact that I don’t think I’ve been able to talk to a fifth-generation or five generation family-owned business. So to get you on is pretty cool. And it’s cool to me. I kind of wanted to get your take, obviously, as a member of that family. What’s it mean to you to be involved in the business? And what excites you about working at Greer’s?

John Carey: Yeah, Rob. So it’s very important to me. I’ve worked outside of the company, but I think working for the family business motivates me more. I feel like I’m at my most efficient, most optimal, and just little things that you might not do when you’re outside of the family business. And so it helps just to, when I’m working at Greer’s, from middle school to high school during summers in college, after college some, there’s a lot of pride involved. So it’s not just a job. It’s more about a family business.

Rob Stott: Half kidding question, though, I have to ask is, did you have an option? Was this a family calling or was this sort of something that you knew you had coming to you?

John Carey: No, I did, I did have the option. And in the store, as mentioned before, my dad’s the oldest furniture store in the state. And there’s been lots of different products that have come from it, lots of different product types that have come through. So that’s something else that excites me is just if you look about at the flexibility or versatility of the business over the years, going from hardware to … And then within furniture, we did appliances. But now we no longer do appliances and electronics. But now instead we’re doing more bedding and doing Big Green Egg grills. So it’s just, furniture is kind of the core, the rock that’s been there ever since the transition from hardware, but a lot has changed along with that.

Rob Stott: The cool thing your dad mentioned is that obviously having you involved, not only does it keep it in the family, but it gives Greer’s the opportunity to kind of look ahead to that next generation of shopper, which I know is something that, as he mentioned too, the business has … One of the keys to this 130 years is the fact that it’s been able to adapt and evolve and that sort of thing. So I’m curious, maybe tough to look 130 years down the road, but I mean, just in your short time there right now, so far, what do you see sort of as that next adaptation for Greer’s or kind of where are you looking to keep it so that you guys can continue this success?

John Carey: Yeah, sure. So I’m working off and on with the company for several years now, but I think it’s something we want to preserve the company. And it’s been 130 years that we’re celebrating. And I think going forward, the key is to preserve the history while also adapting to current trends. Changing is important, but also keeping the company history and what it stands for, the values, intact. So things that change, furniture and products, merchandise, anything like that, you got to be able to adapt to the different products that are coming through. And in our case, not just the different types of products, but the different types of furniture or grills or outdoor furniture that we may sell. And then how those things change over the years. But also more from an operational standpoint are things that change in marketing and advertising, changing with all the technology that’s happened in the last 20 years.

So I think it’s important to just have a nice combination of keeping the history of Greer’s going, but also, with me being a little younger, being able to adapt with things. And a lot of what I do is on that front to help my dad. He’s a baby boomer and I’m in my early thirties. So I’m helping on the social media for Greer’s. So I handle that. And then I also handle our website, pricing the website and putting up advertisements on the website. So I help a lot with advertising and marketing, social media, Google reviews, Facebook reviews, all kinds of things like that. So that would probably be where I contribute the most at the moment is more on that, where things are changing and just so we keep up with everything.

And I think we’ve done a pretty good job with that. We get a lot of responses on our Facebook posts that I put, our website. We are able to track our numbers and see how many people came here from the website. Whether it was them calling from a Google search or them using directions to get here from Google. So we can see that it’s working. So the website, the social media, and the pricing on the website, all of that’s really been working well. So I think that’s something where I take the most pride in helping with all the new things going on in the world.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And I know, certainly, it’s kind of that, I think your dad said it, the breath of fresh air into the business that can kind of keep things moving and in the right direction. Not necessarily in a right or wrong direction, but a different direction. And it sort of goes along with the whole idea of a business adapting and evolving to changing times and changing needs. So it’s cool to hear. And I mean, to have been able to talk to three different generations, three out of the five generations of this business, is really cool. So I appreciate you guys taking the time during this busy time, I know, ahead of not only your anniversary celebration but just the dog days of summer here. So I appreciate y’all all three generations taking time and sharing a little bit of your story with us.

John Carey: Yeah. Yeah. Thanks so much, Rob. And with the different generations in the family have gone through, but also something that I think helps with the balance here is that we have different generations. We’ve always had different age groups of employees. My parents in their 60s working here, we have people in their 40s that may be working on the truck, people in their 50s, and myself in my 30s. And then we have high school and college kids coming in part-time. So I think that helps just having, within the company right now there’s different generations of age groups working here. So I think that’s pretty cool.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And just keep having at it. It’s cool to hear a success story like yours. 130 years isn’t something you hear too much of, I think, anymore in independent retail, just with all the changes and things like that and how many of these businesses aren’t able to adapt. So to see that there’s a 130 year old business that’s able to be nimble and willing to adapt and change as they need to on the fly is really cool. So keep at it. And we look forward to hearing more from Greer’s and what you guys are doing and enjoy the 130th celebration.

John Carey: Will do. Thanks so much, Rob.


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