I grew up in a Stop n Shop household. My family were upper middle class, both of my parents held advanced degrees, and our financial ups and downs were reflected in how many vacations we could take or how often we could eat at restaurants. Although my mom complained when her average weekly grocery bill went over $100 for our family of five, the price of groceries was never a significant worry for us.
Then I grew up, and experienced significant financial hardship for the first time in my life. Rents in Massachusetts are among the highest in the nation, and it’s not uncommon for people on the lower side of the income scale to spend more than 1/2 their income just to keep a roof over their heads. Getting to and from a near-minimum wage job, whether it’s accomplished by maintaining a car and keeping it gassed up or by taking public transportation, was another unavoidable expense, as were phone service and internet. And then there was my weekly or bi-weekly food budget.
I started out shopping at Stop n Shop, the way my mother always had. I never starved, or got evicted, but I also never had much left over at the month’s end, if anything. I felt as if there was no way to get ahead, no way to start accumulating savings, no chance to better my circumstances while I was caught in this feedback loop, using everything I had just to sustain myself. Worse, I had this feeling as if maybe everything was rigged. Corporations like Stop n Shop were gaming me, raising prices arbitrarily, offering random deals on items I had no need for, “discounting” things to prices that still seemed higher than reasonable. Then I found Market Basket.
Market Basket is a no frills chain. Its stores are ugly, its products make little effort to entice you, there are no rewards points or tacky plastic discount tags. They just sell food there. That’s all they do. They sell food at prices which are so much lower than the high-end chains it makes you feel those places ought to be illegal.
Market Basket makes you feel as if you’re getting a square deal, for once. I can still remember the relief I felt when I realized I could cut my grocery budget in half with savy Market Basket shopping. Now magnify that by every working family, every single mom, every person struggling with unemployment, in the state of Massachusetts. Customers love Market Basket for that. I know I did.
Before the public drama that’s erupted over the firing of CEO Arthur T., I had no idea that in addition to giving customers a square deal, Market Basket also gave a square deal to its workers. Although I can vaguely remember my grandmother calling it “Demoulas” I didn’t know a thing about the family that owned the chain, or their internal politics. If you had told me that Market Basket was owned by the Peoples Republic of China and kept its prices low on the backs of illegal immigrant labor, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Decency just isn’t something I’ve come to expect from business owners. When I found out that this place I’d learned to depend on for a deal actually wasn’t screwing anybody, that whole time? That mattered. That felt like something special.
Workers and consumers have gotten used to getting screwed. We’ve learned to go along with it. It’s been worked into our worldview so that it hardly even bothers us. A company planning to increase its bottom line by reducing workers’ compensation isn’t exactly headline news, these days. But when Market Basket started to go that way, it felt completely different. On some deep level it had communicated to it’s customers that it was the place that you could go without feeling screwed over. The possibility that this was all about to change, that it was poised to become like all of the other companies, the ones that tarnish our souls and dampen our spirits every time we interact with them, that hit something deep inside us. All at once, in unison, we all reacted. We all said “NO”. I just hope that someone listens.