, Salem, MA

July 18, 2013

Our view: The battle for Market Basket

The Salem News

---- — It may be among the unlikeliest of battles. A grocery-chain family takes its internal feud public, and the public jumps in with both feet.

There’s a family fight playing out now that consumers across Massachusetts and New Hampshire believe they have a real stake in.

The outcome of the Demoulas family battle, which pits cousin against cousin, could have an effect on consumer spending throughout the 71-store Market Basket chain.

The chain’s board of directors was expected to vote today on whether to replace CEO Arthur T. Demoulas with his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas.

Ordinarily, family in-fighting is no concern of ordinary citizens. But Market Basket customers are a loyal bunch. And they’re loyal for one primary reason: low prices.

Threaten people’s pocketbooks and their ears perk up.

There’s been bad blood within the family for decades, but the chain has continued to grow.

And with that growth have come new, larger stores and a swelling consumer base loyal to the brand.

Add in longtime employees who fear what changes may come under a new CEO and you have a very public fight. An online petition to “Save Market Basket” had nearly 40,000 signatures Tuesday afternoon. Store workers and others have stationed themselves outside the grocery stores this week to collect more signatures to present to the directors in advance of their vote.

Some employees, including Alex Butler, who works at the Danvers store, have stepped up to speak, presumably at some employment risk should the directors opt to replace one cousin with the other.

But, Butler said this week, “There are a lot of good people working for this company. And they’ve really taken care of me.”

Managers and employees took out full-page ads yesterday in The Salem News and sister papers supporting Arthur T. Demoulas and pleading with the Board of Directors: “Do not jeopardize our future.”

Peabody resident George Hoffman, a longtime customer, was eager to sign.

“I don’t want to see any changes,” he told reporter Jonathan Phelps. “Everything is just cheaper, and they treat you much better. There is no comparison.”

Steve Burke, 60, a 41-year Demoulas employee who is now meat manager at the Haverhill store, was among those gathering signatures in support of Arthur T. Demoulas.

“The man has made a lot of money,” Burke said. “But he’s done a lot for the people along the way.”

Those who oppose the possible cousin switch fear the company would change — that the supermarket chain’s concern for employee well-being might diminish and prices rise.

Despite the longtime family feud, the grocery store chain has flourished at a time when storefronts are filled and vacated with alarming regularity.

It was a banner day in June 2011, when the new Londonderry Market Basket opened, all 108,000 square feet of it. Mark Lemieux, the store manager, was justifiably proud of the new store, the largest New Hampshire had to offer.

But he made a point then, too, of speaking to the loyal employees, including the deli manager who had started working for Market Basket 20 years earlier, when still a high school student.

That kind of loyalty is tough to build and, once lost, close to impossible to regain.

On the eve of the Londonderry store opening, Market Basket operations manager David McLean summed up the chain’s philosophy.

“We are committed to the lowest prices,” he said. “Shopping here is uncomplicated: There are no gimmicks, no frequent-shopper cards or buy one, get one free.”

The Demoulas family has a business to run, a very big business. Tens of thousands of customers and workers anxiously await the decision expected today.

Let’s hope the directors weigh the number of petition signatures, look at how that business grew and consider why consumers and employees are so loyal to the brand before they cast a vote to change directions.