Until this summer, Casey Kett never thought much about Market Basket. Mostly, he remembers his brother nagging him to pick up inexpensive beer at the store in Portsmouth on his way to their parents’ summer home in Maine.
Then, like thousands of consumers around New England, Kett became intrigued by the unprecedented protest Market Basket employees staged to get Arthur T. Demoulas reinstated as head of the grocery empire.
“I was blown away by it,” Kett recalled. “I said, ‘What are they doing there to have these people so loyal?’ ”
And so on Friday, just two days after Demoulas struck a deal to buy out his cousin’s share of the company, Kett finally stopped in at the Portsmouth store — becoming one of an untold number of new customers drawn to Market Basket by the recent barrage of news coverage.
The six-week spectacle at Market Basket accomplished what a marketing guru with a multimillion-dollar budget could only dream of: reaching thousands of potential new consumers with a seemingly endless stream of authentic testimonials, including unprompted gushing from loyal customers about the chain’s low prices and friendly culture.
“They’ve had so much publicity and it really all has been terrifically positive,” said Daniel Korschun, a fellow at the Center for Corporate Reputation Management at Drexel University. “People relate very strongly with what employees and customers were trying to do.”
That free and mostly positive media exposure could be a boon as Market Basket tries to recover from a long standoff that cost the company tens of millions in lost sales after employees walked off the job and customers boycotted its stores. The grocery business is intensely competitive, and analysts say traditional supermarkets are increasingly having to battle restaurants and big-box retailers such as Walmart for their “share of stomach.”
Market Basket executives said it is too soon to know if the chain is gaining new customers from competitors because of this summer’s drama. But anecdotal reports from several stores suggest the company’s brand awareness among consumers has skyrocketed, with many shoppers planning to at least stop by to see what all the talk was about.
John Garon, a manager at the Market Basket in Burlington, said the new shoppers give themselves away by looking up at the aisle signs for directions or asking where the produce is.
“It’s not how we wanted to get publicity, but the effect has been enormous,” he said. “They’re telling me they came because they saw the effect we had on so many people, and how it must be such a great company. Others said they had heard the prices were low but didn’t realize what a difference it was until they saw price comparisons in the news.”
Some non-Market Basket shoppers admitted to being skeptical about the buzz surrounding the chain.
To Aaron Lumnah, who had never set foot in a Market Basket, the breathless descriptions of the grocery chain from protesting employees and customers sounded like hyperbole, or just propaganda.
Still, the 22-year-old had just moved to a new apartment in Somerville and needed a new place to shop for groceries. Time to check out Market Basket.
“I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was about and see if it actually lived up to how good the prices were supposed to be,” said Lumnah, who typically shops at Stop & Shop.
‘It’s not how we wanted to get publicity, but the effect has been enormous.’John Garon, manager at the Market Basket in Burlington, on new customers visiting the store
His first trip last weekend was a mixed bag: The prices were low, just as supporters had bragged. But the big weekend crowd at the smallish Somerville Market Basket made for a slightly intimidating experience. He wants to check out a nearby Star Market before settling on a store.
“There were just so many people. It was hard to navigate through with a cart because everyone was everywhere,” Lumnah said. “But the prices were pretty good, and they had a good selection. I was surprised by how much they had in stock.”
Market Basket’s devoutly loyal customer base is something of a throwback.
Time was, grocery shoppers picked a store and stuck with it, but the recent recession changed that. Now, analysts said, shoppers are more likely to patronize multiple stores to get the best values for different groceries.
“A lot of consumer habits were shaken to the core when the economy went south,” said Susan Viamari, an analyst for the Chicago-based retail consulting firm IRI. “We have a new normal where consumers have been more flexible, more focused on finding deals.”
That trend prevails even though the economy has rebounded.
That, along with the sudden surge of media exposure about its low prices, could have customers of other chains considering switching to Market Basket.
“Market Basket clearly understands that value is the core driver of shoppers these days,” Viamari said, citing research she conducted that shows one-third of consumers will shop multiple stores for the best deal.
Analysts cautioned that it is still unclear whether Market Basket can convert Kett, Lumnah, and other curious first-time shoppers into regular customers.
“When somebody’s testing a new store, you really only have one shot at that customer. That first experience has tremendous weight on whether they’ll come back,” said Korschun.
“Arthur T.’s team is rightly very concerned about getting [Market Basket] up and running as quickly as possible, because they know they have a limited time to impress people.”
Meantime, the rival supermarkets are hoping that “refugee” shoppers who came to them from Market Basket during the crisis will stay.
Jim Rice, president of the sister chains Shaw’s Supermarkets and Star Market, thanked customers in a full-page ad in The Boston Sunday Globe.
“Our dedicated vendor partners are always willing to go above and beyond to meet the customers’ needs, providing extra product and resources when needed,” he wrote in an oblique reference to the flood of new customers his company took in while Market Basket was beset by the boycott and employee walkout.
Even with the allegiance of customers potentially up for grabs, it is possible defectors won’t result in much new business for any one supermarket.
And with chains such as Wegmans and Aldi also moving into Massachusetts, the supermarket business already was experiencing an unusual amount of upheaval — even before the Market Basket spectacle unfolded.
“It’s as if, in the supermarket business in New England, the reset button has been pushed and now people have to begin reevaluating how they shop for groceries,” Korschun said.
“It could very well net out to zero, despite the turmoil. But for Market Basket, netting out to zero is still a phenomenal victory.”