, Gloucester, MA

July 22, 2013

Fishtown Local: The Gloucester food wars

Fishtown Local
Gordon Baird

---- — We all read with interest the articles last week about the Supermarket Wars burning through the DeMoulas family tree of the Market Basket Grocery store chain.

I guess Arthur S. DeMoulas isn’t happy with Arthur T. DeMoulas, but there’s room for debate within the court of the two King Arthurs about who’s the real champion of the round table.

But while the pair of jousting Arthurs fight it out up the line, here at home, the more relevant supermarket wars have been going on for two years now, since Market Basket roiled the local food scene shop-a-thon at Sam Park’s mall.

Clearly the best tenant the mall could have signed, it instantly catapulted Gloucester Crossing into major shopping relevancy. The place was packed from the start. Cash register lanes, crammed with customers, some themselves pretty large, pushing huge cartloads of food — sometimes more than one cart, too, and wearing smiles that reflected some often very much lower prices, as is DeMoulas’s wont.

In supermarket wars, usually the battle is won “on the ground” — that is, people vote with their feet. People can talk all they want about intentions, but it’s where they walk in the door that counts.

Market Basket can be a madhouse, so the other stores still pull in their share of business. But it’s not like it used to be.

Some food shoppers are dyed-in-the-wool committed to stores they’ve been going to for years . . . they’re in the habit, so to speak. Your feet walk right to the peanut butter aisle because that’s where it’ s always been, then cheese, bread, etc. in their order. Some make their choice because of location, closeness and ease. But some people pick their market because they are completely wide open, their own personal supermarket — like that “Seinfeld” episode, when Kramer sponsors the piece of highway and paints out the lines to give the drivers extra room to drive all over your lane, as squishy as you please.

You can find times of day at local markets where it’s your personal store, like that. You can even hop up on the back of the cart, scooter style and give a push. Off you go, like Kramer. The other Friday, I encountered people on just three of 14 aisles, so I could do plenty of scooting around the store.

Eventually, you would think, the pre-existing markets will have to respond to the Demoulas prices, but that is a command that most likely has to come from higher up off Cape Ann.

The other markets have stuck to their strategies from the days before Gloucester Crossing appeared, and that have served them so well for decades. But clearly, we’re living in a different food landscape than even five years ago. The customers have shown that Market Basket is an instant fan favorite. Now the ball is squarely in the other markets’ court to counter the competition, as they say.

There are many factors to decide other than just price. This is pure natural selection at its American best.

Darwin himself would even have to pick a store. Survival of the fittest, he’d say. The ones who respond to change and competition the fastest will be the ones who survive to live another day.

The fittest, the fastest and the fattest. As they say on Wall Street, “Let the markets decide!”

Gordon Baird is a local actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine, producer of the community access TV show “Gloucester Chicken Shack,” and member of Gloucester’s Unitarian Universalist congregation.