Market Basket: 'It's the prices, stupid'

The new Market Basket grocery store celebrated its grand opening on its first day of business on Wednesday at Riverside Landing in New Bedford's North End. All 27 checkout lanes were running and busy. John Sladewski/The Standard-Times

HOURS OF OPERATION: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays.

James Carville is credited with making Bill Clinton president of the United States by constantly reminding his campaign that “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Carville’s pithy advice came to mind Wednesday at the long-awaited opening of the new Market Basket store in New Bedford. “It’s the prices, stupid.”

That seemed to be what everyone was thinking as hundreds crowded into the handsome new supermarket at Riverside Landing, just off Interstate 195.

“It’s the prices, stupid.”

Lobster was $3.99 a pound and steamers were an astounding $1.99 a pound.

The good deals went from there, and the list, in a flier with which the chain store had blanketed the region, wasn’t short.
People who know prices said items such as name-brand Polish ham at $2.99 a pound and cauliflower heads at two for $3 were unheard of.

Other local chain supermarkets, in a nod to the marketing muscle of Market Basket, had quietly lowered their own prices over the past couple of weeks.

“I haven’t seen prices like that where I shop for years,” said Inez Gonsalves-Drolet, an aide to U.S. Rep. Barney Frank.
She was planning to head for the bakery after the press conference of big-wigs cutting the blue ribbon for the store.

The Market Basket opening may be remembered as the triumphant moment of the 5-year-old administration of Mayor Scott Lang.

Lang has also won many other kudos, including for bringing a hotel to downtown, reducing the city murder rate and rebuilding pride in dozens of community groups.

But as far as affecting city residents where they live their everyday lives, the low prices of Market Basket may speak the loudest for this mayor in the end.

At the opening, Lang spoke pointedly about how Arthur DeMoulas, the scion of the Market Basket empire, had impressed him with his family business that now operates some 65 stores across the nation.

DeMoulas once declined to stay in New Bedford after a Friday afternoon meeting, the mayor said, because he wanted to sit at a wake with an employee whose mother had died.

The woman was single and an only child.

“That’s the kind of person I want in New Bedford,” Lang told those gathered for the dedication.

For most of the shoppers — who came from as far away as Somerset and Westport on Wednesday — the low prices were the attraction.

“I’ve been going to Market Basket for many years and a lot of the prices do stay reasonable,” said 51-year-old Ervin Alves of Fall River.

Alves had Chips Ahoy and Keebler cookies in his basket for $1 with a coupon.

He has been traveling to Raynham from Fall River to shop at Market Basket but said he’ll now go to the nearer New Bedford store.

His mother, Irene, who has seven people in her family — three adults and four children — pointed to two family packages of ribs she had purchased for $5.

Others were hoping Market Basket’s big initial splash would keep up in the future.

“I’ve noticed a big difference (in prices) but we’ll see how it goes,” said Caroline Miranda, who lives on Bullard Street, a few streets away from the supermarket in the North End.

Miranda said the store will make a big difference in her long-struggling neighborhood, whose main thoroughfare, Acushnet Avenue, has been more about Latino bodegas and Portuguese restaurants than full-service supermarkets for decades.

“We needed something badly,” she said. “There’s a lot of people without cars around here, so this is a plus.”
Miranda said she knew at least four or five people who live in the “very poor” two-block area where she lives and who are working at the new Market Basket.

Among the 702 people who had obtained jobs, Arthur DeMoulas has said 80 percent were from the city itself.
Miranda acknowledged that many of the jobs are part-time positions but said they will still help greatly.
“Any kind of job makes a difference in today’s world,” she said.

It’s actually giving people hope, she added.

“I saw it spark an interest in just trying to do a better job in life by the employees they hired.”

If Market Basket is a godsend to the near North End, it was not to some critics on the scene of the opening.

A small group of union members from nearby supermarkets (Shaw’s and Stop & Shop) stood quietly in the morning rain protesting the opening. They’ll continue for the foreseeable future, they said.

The protesters wondered whether Market Basket is able to deliver its low prices because it hires part-time workers without providing health insurance or retirement benefits.

The unionized supermarkets routinely give workers that kind of benefit, they said.

“We’re trying to get the community to shop at the stores where they provide health insurance, where they provide pensions, free, for the part-timers,” said Joe Renzi of Local 328 of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union.

Renzi, the director of organizing for the union, charged that Market Basket is adamantly anti-union.

Renzi also said the competing supermarkets are good community leaders that contribute to community social programs.
“We’re trying to ask customers to please keep supporting those stores,” he said.

Officials with Market Basket and its press office did not return phone calls about the Local 328 charges.

Lang said his understanding is that many of the part-time hires will be able to work themselves into full-time jobs as time goes by. (The mayor said he understood that roughly 75 percent of the Market Basket hires are part-time.)

He also pointed out that Market Basket has a profit-sharing plan.

Lang said looking at the large number of employees working Wednesday reminded him of the staffing levels of supermarkets when he was a kid.

“Market Basket is extremely proud of their employee relations,” he said.

It’s not unusual to meet people who have worked for Market Basket for 25 to 30 years, and young people who’ve been there five to 10 years, he said.

“The employees are unbelievably loyal and committed,” he said.
Contact Jack Spillane at jspillane@s-t.com

October 07, 2010 12:00 AM

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