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What Enabled the Market Basket Victory?

ClayShirkySomewhere in a NYU office, Clay Shirky is leaning back in his chair with a satisfied grin on his face thinking, “I told you so.” He’s much too polite to say it out loud, but he’s almost certainly thinking it. Because that’s the first thing I thought this morning after hearing news that there was an agreement in place between the warring billionaire DeMoulas families.

Some of you reading this have no idea who Clay Shirky is. Some of you have no idea what the Market Basket story is. And most of you have no idea why I’m connecting the two together.

Who Is Clay Shirky?

Quite simply put, he is a visionary. I read his book five years ago and it’s no exaggeration to say that it transformed my career. I had joined LinkedIn and Twitter in 2008 and been introduced to a number of visionary folks who were way ahead of the curve. Clay Shirky was one of those. I watched this TED Talk from 2005 and was completely and utterly transfixed.

If you don’t have 20 minutes to watch this talk, I’ll summarize it. The Internet in general, and social media in particular, have transformed the way people organize and collaborate. It used to be the case that organizing a bunch of people spread out across the country or the world was difficult and expensive. It required infrastructure, administrative staff, and money. Today, that’s no longer the case. People with little or no money from all corners of the globe can self-organize themselves in a Facebook minute. This talk is a summary of his book, Here Comes Everybody, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

The reason this hit me so hard was that I was (and still am) a volunteer leader for several different professional member associations. I instantly recognized he was talking about us. And so I began to bring his message as part of my leadership role and over the course of several tumultuous years, the International Society of Automation (ISA) largely embraced the concept and began taking steps to adapt to the collaborative sea change.

Now, what about this Market Basket situation?

What Is the Market Basket Story?

For those readers outside of New England, Market Basket is a local grocery store chain founded by Athanasios (“Arthur”) and Efrosini Demoulas in Lowell, MA in 1917. The store was purchased by two of their children who expanded to 15 stores within 15 years. In the ensuing decades, family members have battled one another over control of a chain of 71 stores across the region that generate billions of dollars in annual revenue.

In recent months, these battles reached a boiling point between two cousins, both named Arthur DeMoulas. They are referred to using their middle initials as Arthur T. and Arthur S. Arthur T. had been functioning as CEO for years and was beloved by his employees. He held personal relationships with many of them (showing up at funerals and comforting them in hospitals) that made him an endearing father figure. The company also promoted from within, and had (relatively) generous benefit packages and profit-sharing. Arthur T. also implemented an across-the-board 4% price cut to support its customers during the economic downturn. It was a throwback to the golden age of American capitalism that people find sadly uncommon today.

In June of 2014, Arthur S. managed to flip the allegiance of a board member to his side and fired Arthur T. along with most of his management team. The employees were furious and staged a walk-out along with regular protests. Food deliveries stopped and customers boycotted in a show of solidarity. It was reported that some stores saw as much as 98% drop in revenue. Part time employees were laid off and the pain was even felt by other neighboring businesses who saw precipitous drops in their foot traffic. The story gained national attention from news outlets and political commentators.

Late last night, reports emerged that a deal was in place for Arthur T. to buy out the 50.5% interest of his cousin and that he would to head of operations effective immediately. Within hours, the deliveries resumed and there was much rejoicing.

Here Comes Everybody

How did this happen? What made this victory possible by a rag tag mob of baggers, cashiers, produce clerks, and meat cutters?

Social media.

I seriously doubt that this would have turned out this way 5 or 10 years ago. What made this possible was the ability of the employees and customers to self-organize. Facebook groups and pages appeared, with schedules and pictures of protests. Status updates spread the word of misdeeds like wildfire.

Save Market Basket page on Facebook

Think about what this would have looked like in 2004. The employees would have sent faxes and emails from store to store, organizing the walkout and subsequent protests. This may or may not have been successful. Next, customers would see the the protests during their shopping but there’s no way to get the full story, so they may or may not have been sympathetic. And they’d probably forget all about it by the time they arrived home. And they may or may not have seen a news story or two on the local station.

There would not have been a #SaveArtieT hashtag on Facebook, with pictures of destitute store shelves and lively protests viewed by hundreds of thousands of customers.

empty market basket shelves

Photo credit: Casie Alice Peck on Facebook.

There would not have been large, shoulder-to-shoulder, coordinated demonstrations between employees and customers.

market basket protest

There was a perceived injustice happening and everybody came. Without unions. Without money. Without infrastructure. And somewhere, Clay Shirky is smiling.

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  • dbartenstein

    “It was a throwback to the golden age of American capitalism that people find sadly uncommon today.” Maybe this is how we get back there?

    • Indeed. I think we’ve just witnessed a blueprint for crowdsourced labor organization. Or, put another way, a union without a union.

  • First, the Arab Spring…then the Market Basket Summer.

    • Bill, I believe you meant to say, “Mahket Basket Summah”