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Market Basket protest

So what’s 4% off of nothing?

Market Basket, a New England grocery chain that last made news here by offering a yearlong 4% discount on virtually everything in the store, is suddenly running out of products to discount. Empty shelves are not being restocked, shoppers have fled to competitors, employees are defying top managers and observers are wondering how much longer this can go on.

How did this happen to one of the region’s best-loved supermarkets, and so swiftly? It’s not because loyal shoppers have stopped loving Market Basket. It’s because they, and thousands of employees, love the store more than they do its new leadership – and they’re willing to take drastic measures to show it.

The end result is a dramatic set of circumstances that make this supermarket look like a soap opera, or perhaps a Greek tragedy.

It all began last month with the ouster of Market Basket’s popular CEO. That in itself is remarkable, since most grocery shoppers would be hard pressed to even name their favorite store’s CEO, much less participate in a revolt over his firing. But at Market Basket, the old CEO, Arthur T. DeMoulas, and the head of the board of directors, his similarly-named cousin Arthur S. DeMoulas, are well known to employees and shoppers alike, because they’ve been at each other’s throats in a drama that’s played out over decades.

The Cliff’s Notes version of the dispute is that the two DeMoulas have been battling for control of the family-owned company that was started by their grandfather in Lowell, Massachusetts nearly a hundred years ago. CEO Arthur T. DeMoulas was perceived as the benevolent leader, generous to his employees and loyal to his price-conscious customers. The aforementioned 4% discount, for example, was instituted at Arthur T.’s behest as “a reward” for “Market Basket’s many valued customers.”

Arthur S. is perceived by Arthur T. loyalists as being more supportive of the company’s shareholders than its shoppers or staff. He was, they say, not particularly supportive of the 4% discount, the generous employee benefits packages, or just about anything that Arthur T. did that cost the company money. So when the opportunity came to seize control from his cousin, he did.

And employees and shoppers loyal to Arthur T. have decided to fight back.

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Once-loyal customers are taking their business elsewhere. Warehouse workers are refusing to make deliveries. Empty shelves are driving away the customers that remain. Some employees are even politely asking customers to stay away (“We kindly ask you to stop shopping with us temporarily until this issue is resolved,” read a sign posted in one store’s window). Other employees are gathering by the thousands at protest rallies.

It’s sort of like a strike, except no one is walking picket lines – they’re still going to work every day, they’re just demanding their old boss back. Arthur S. backers have since fired several executives loyal to Arthur T., and are threatening the jobs of employees who are interfering with regular business operations, but that’s only infuriated Arthur T. supporters even more.

So employees are in open revolt, shoppers are staying away, and there are fewer things on the shelves for shoppers to buy anyway. Take a look at some of these social media images of what Market Basket stores are looking like these days:

Most grocery shoppers at other stores, in other parts of the country, couldn’t possibly relate – could you even imagine boycotting your local Kroger or Safeway because the CEO is fired? How many shoppers know, or care, who the CEO of Kroger or Safeway is anyway?

Shoppers, and employees, of Market Basket know all too well who the CEO of their store is. And they’re willing to see their favorite store suffer – and maybe, at this rate, wither away – unless their preferred CEO is restored.

In the meantime, the new leadership is scrambling to reassure its remaining shoppers, that it has their best interests in mind. Low prices? We still got ’em! That 4% discount? We’ll keep it, even if we hated it. In fact, at the time of Arthur T.’s firing last month, Arthur S. and his supporters promised shoppers that they wouldn’t even notice any changes at all.

How wrong, as it turns out, they were.

Image source: “Customers of Market Basket” Facebook page

3 Comments

  1. Winchweasel says:

    As an ATD supporter and local MB shopper, I’m for once happy to report barren shelves!

    ATD supporters know that if ATD wanted to start a new grocery store chain, we’d back him 110%. I’m not saying he’ll have 50 stores by next year, but better to work for an honest guy than a greedy bunch of CEOs.

    What’s going to happen to all the recent real estate purchases? Are they still going to erect new stores during this customer/employee strike? Will they sell off existing stores to competitors to make ends meet? So many questions. Not that I really care what the new CEOs will do, but if ATD gets his job back – what an empire he will have to rebuild.

  2. That is unusual but also, very cool.

  3. What an unusual and fascinating story. I do hope the Arthur T. supporters get their CEO back.

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