Jeannine Goodhue regularly shops at Market Basket for its low prices. But on Tuesday she was wheeling a shopping cart stuffed with groceries from the Stop & Shop in Reading because she could not bring herself to patronize Market Basket while its employees were fighting management over control of the company.
“It’s just like crossing a picket line, it feels just like that,” said Goodhue, who lives nearby in Melrose.
Not that she was happy about shifting allegiance; the peaches at Stop & Shop, she noted tartly, were 50 cents a pound more than at Market Basket.
Supermarkets across Massachusetts are experiencing a rush of business from customers once loyal to Market Basket. Many say they are honoring the Market Basket employees’ request to boycott their chain, while some are turned off by the aisles of empty shelves as the widespread employee protests threaten to paralyze the 71-store chain.
Meanwhile, the new Market Basket co-chief executives sought to stanch the loss of customers such as Goodhue, issuing a request to their 25,000 employees to call off the protest and return the stores to normal operations.
“We understand the strain and emotion facing Market Basket associates,” co-chief executives Felicia Thornton and James Gooch said in their statement. “We strongly encourage all associates to return their focus to Market Basket’s customers, their needs and expectations.”
But many customers had already voted with their feet, and evidence of a mass flight from Market Basket was not hard to find at competitors with stores nearby.
In the middle of the day all the checkout lines at the Stop & Shop in Reading, for example, were busy with a queue of at least five customers.
The parking lot was nearly full, and a handwritten sign out front advertised the store was “hiring for all positions.”
Meanwhile, nearby the Market Basket was described as a “ghost town” by two customers who went in to shop.
In Lowell, a Hannaford supermarket was filled with the kinds of crowds normally seen on a weekend.
Deirdre O’Connor usually shops at the Market Basket across the street, but out of support for the protesting employees found herself competing for quickly disappearing stock at Hannaford.
“I’ve popped in and out of Hannaford, but I’ve never seen this Hannaford as busy as it is today. The shelves were bare,” said O’Connor.
Back at Market Basket, customers taped receipts from purchases made at competing food stores on the glass windows — evidence of their support for the employees’ boycott.
Hannaford and Stop & Shop declined to comment.
Although the current crisis dates to late June, when the directors of the parent company, Demoulas Super Markets Inc., fired longtime president Arthur T. Demoulas, the origins of the feud are decades old.
Demoulas has been fighting with his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, for control of the company since the 1990s, and the power bloc on the board of directors finally moved in Arthur S. Demoulas’ favor last year.
The bitter family fight had largely been confined to inside the company until the dismissal of Arthur T. Demoulas, who was extremely popular among rank and file employees.
What began as a rally and public protest over his firing has spread into a cause célebrè in which Demoulas and the protesting employees have won widespread support.
So far eight Market Basket supervisors and managers have been fired.
Gooch and Thornton said the “individuals who were terminated took significant actions that harmed the company and therefore compromised Market Basket’s ability to be there for our customers. We took the difficult step of termination only after we saw no alternative.”
While protests Tuesday were largely peaceful, one Market Basket employee was arrested outside a store in Epping, N.H., and charged with reckless driving.
Kevin Griffin, a longtime grocery industry analyst, said the employees were playing “a dangerous game” by openly encouraging customers to spend their money at competitors.
“This is somewhat of a powder keg,” said Griffin, publisher of The Griffin Report of Food Marketing, based in Duxbury. “I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better, but I don’t see it lasting much longer.”
Meanwhile, reports of food shortages — especially perishables such as produce, seafood, and meat — throughout the chain continued to mount. 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.
The company, organizers have said, has tried to bring in replacements, but without staff and drivers in place, few deliveries are making it into stores.
A representative for Demoulas Super Markets could not be reached Tuesday. An afternoon call to company headquarters went straight to a recorded message that the switchboard was “currently closed.”
Market Basket suppliers were also feeling the effects. One Boston-based seafood vendor, who asked not to be named out of fear of losing Market Basket’s business, said daily orders from the chain have dried up.
The vendor added that deliveries made Thursday probably never made it to stores, and by now that food has spoiled, probably costing Market Basket millions of dollars in lost product.
And yet the numbers in support of Arthur T. Demoulas keep growing.
By Tuesday the Facebook pages created by protesting employees had 73,000 fans, and more than 80 elected officials in Massachusetts and New Hampshire had signed petitions calling for boycotts unless management rehired Demoulas.
At a Market Basket in Lowell, employees had set up a folding table next to the store entrance to collect signatures for a petition asking the company’s directors to reinstate Demoulas.
Jay Davis, a meat clerk at the Reading Market Basket, said the petitions signed by customers and other supporters filled the bed of a pickup truck that drove around stores to collect them. Two petitions circulating online had also collected some 18,000 signatures.
Although he was pushing customers to boycott his chain, Davis said he and his colleagues would still keep the stores clean and presentable with what food remained.
“If you want to boycott, boycott. If you don’t, don’t. We’re not going to hold it against you,” Davis said. “We’re not going shut down the store. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”
Below are reports and photos from social media on the protests:
Employees picket for Arthur T. At Leominster Market Basket / say it's family. pic.twitter.com/0DxF7NDAJx— George Barnes (@georgebarnestg) July 22, 2014