Market Basket Begins Recovery After Turmoil

Alice Farrington has her pick of four supermarkets, all a quick drive from her home.

But this week, instead of going to one of those stores, she drove about 10 miles to shop at a place she's heard a lot about lately: Market Basket, the family-owned New England chain that gained national attention when warehouse employees walked off their jobs and customers boycotted over the firing of the chain's popular leader.

After a six-week protest that cost Market Basket millions in lost sales, the company announced that an agreement had been reached for Arthur T. Demoulas to buy the chain, putting him back in control of the century-old business.

As Market Basket begins picking up the pieces, it is looking to its loyal customer base as well as new shoppers like Farrington, who decided to check out Market Basket after reading glowing testimonials from employees and customers.

"I figured I'd try it - my neighbor is always telling me how much cheaper the prices are, and with all the publicity this summer," Farrington said.

A week after Arthur T. Demoulas reached an agreement to purchase the 50.5 percent interest owned by his rival, cousin Arthur S. Demoulas, and other family members, Farrington found most, but not everything, she was hoping to buy. Store managers reported that their shelves, which had been severely depleted, were filling up quickly now that everyone was back to work.

Some items were still missing or scarce, though, including fresh chicken, hot dogs and yogurt.

"I would say we're up to about 80 percent," said Tom Trainor, a supervisor who was fired after he helped organize the employee revolt but is now back at work. He said he expects the stores to be 90 to 95 percent stocked this weekend.

Company management did not return calls seeking numbers on customer volume and sales since the walkout ended Aug. 27.

Kevin Griffin, publisher of The Griffin Report of Food Marketing, said the crisis turned into a "feel good story" that could attract many new customers.

"I think everybody admires the workers - the people that held out - because typically those things don't end well," Griffin said.

"You'll have new customers going to Market Basket because of the intrigue: `What's all the fuss about this Market Basket company? Are their prices really that low? Are the workers really that nice?"' he said.

But Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University, said he doesn't think Market Basket will draw many new customers and may have trouble getting back some of its old customers, who may have become accustomed to shopping elsewhere during the standoff.

"I think they're bouncing back remarkably quickly, in terms of getting everyone in there, generating good publicity and restocking the shelves," Chaison said. "The question is: After a week or two weeks, will the glow be gone?"

The walkout and sharp decline in customers prompted company management to drastically reduce the hours of part-time workers. Many employees in Massachusetts and New Hampshire applied for unemployment benefits.

On Friday, the U.S. Labor Department acknowledged the impact, reporting that food and beverage stores nationwide lost 17,000 jobs in August, affected by "employment disruptions at a grocery store chain in New England."

Market Basket customers said they were impressed by the fortitude shown by employees who risked losing their jobs and the devotion of Arthur T. Demoulas to a company started by his grandfather. Demoulas is popular among workers and customers for offering generous benefits and keeping prices low.

"Sometimes you lose faith, but when you see something like this, you think there are people who really do care, people who think of other people, and it's not all about money, money, money," said John Viola, a retired roller skating teacher who returned to shop this week at the Market Basket store in Raynham.


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