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Do Customers Care About How You Treat Your Employees?

You might think your customers only care about your products, services, and prices. The Market Basket saga, playing out in New England, shows that they care about how you treat your employees, too.

You seldom see this in Somerville, Massachusetts. 

It was 9 a.m. on a weekday, and there were fewer than 50 cars in the lot (capacity: 218) at Market Basket. Inside the supermarket, the shelves seemed to mirror the state of the lot: They were largely empty. It was strange. As a customer, you get used to seeing capacity--or overbrimming abundance--on those shelves. And in that lot. 

Not today. The reason? Broadly speaking, it's a conflict between labor and management. Yet it's far more nuanced than that. Boston Globe reporter Adam Vaccaro's explainer is a good place to start. But the upshot is this: Last month, the board of Market Basket, a chain with 71 stores, roughly 25,000 employees, and an estimated $4.1 billion in annual sales, fired CEO Arthur T. Demoulas, who was extremely popular with employees. He was a champion of benefits, profit-sharing, and promotion from within. More than this, the employees believed he really cared about them. 

On Sunday, eight other senior employees were fired. A rally on Monday on behalf of Demoulas and those senior employees drew 7,000 people to the Market Basket in Tewksbury, Mass. Inside the stores, perishables have not been restocked. "The stores have not been getting fresh deliveries since Friday because workers at the company's warehouse have abandoned their posts in support of Demoulas," reports the Globe. Meanwhile, on Facebook, two "Save Market Basket" pages have a combined 73,000 Likes. All told, more than 49,000 people have signed petitions to reinstate Demoulas.

Now the once-packed lots have empty spaces and the once-stuffed shelves are mostly vacant. And it's largely because employees are unhappy.

Who Still Shops There?

Given how widespread support has been for Demoulas and, by extension, the Market Basket employees seeking his reinstatement, I wanted to speak to the customers who were still shopping there.

I found that they knew about the protests, and cared immensely about the posterity of their favorite supermarket. But for the time being, at least, their concern wasn't enough to derail their grocery-shopping habits, which were largely based on price, location, and comfortable routine. "It's cheaper than other places, and the people are really nice," said Aracy Lonsdale, 62, of Arlington, whom I spoke to as she loaded groceries into the trunk of her car.

She said she'd been shopping at the Somerville Market Basket for 28 years, ever since coming to the US from Brazil. The drive from Arlington is at least four miles, any way you go. But it was worth it to her, for the prices.

I found Paul Parceiro, 50, of Woburn, in the frozen foods aisle. "I've been coming here at least 20 years," he said. The drive from Woburn is at least nine miles, but the Market Basket in Somerville is on the way to his job at Cambridge Hospital. He said he'd keep shopping at Market Basket as long as there were still products on the shelves, since the prices elsewhere were "sky high."

Still, in their loyalty to Market Basket, Lonsdale and Parceiro seem like exceptions to the rule. Many customers are going elsewhere. "Since this started, we've definitely seen an increase in customers in all of our stores," said Jeff Gulko, a spokesperson for Shaw's, a $5.3 billion grocery chain. He noted that over the last four days, the stores have all increased their staffing, as have Shaw's distribution centers in Massachusetts and Maine. 

A Working Rebellion 

Outside of the supermarket, I spoke to Andrew James, 19, an off-duty bagger at the Somerville store. He held up a sign that read, "Don't Shop Here Till ATD Is Back In Full Control As CEO." 

I asked him if he was worried about losing his job, for protesting outside the store when he was off-duty. He said he wasn't, and that there had been no threats. 

A few feet away, a protester named Eleanor Corcoran, 28, a social worker for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, said she believed all 25,000 employees would soon be laid off. She worried, too, about the effects of Demoulas' ouster on the region. The next step, she felt, would be an increase in grocery prices. "This is a public issue, with the potential to be devastating to hundreds of thousands, who can't afford other options," she said. 

You might think that, inside the store, you'd find a protest-free zone, a province where management controls the signage and the messages. But at the Somerville store, you'd be wrong. Within, there were signs in support of Demoulas; pictures of him, modeled after the Barack Obama "Hope" image; petitions that any customer could sign in Demoulas' support; and other signs with the contact info of Market Basket's directors. At one empty register, lying on the bagging station, I saw a sign that read "Don't Feed Corporate Greed." 

So say this for what remains of Market Basket's upper management: It has not exactly put a lid on employee protests. David Walsh, a 27-year Market Basket veteran who was the manager on duty, politely declined to give any statements.

How all of this will turn out is anyone's guess. But here's what we know: The region's shopping habits have changed, in response to employee dissatisfaction.

In principle, you already knew how an employees-first culture usually pays off for both management and customers. The Market Basket saga is living proof of what can happen when that once-great culture is under siege.

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