When the Market Basket situation blew up this weekend, so did Michael Devaney’s inbox.
“I knew something was up when I had 37,000 e-mails,” he said.
Many messages are short and angry, demanding the return of ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. Others are as long as book chapters. But 29-year-old Devaney said he hardly has time to read more than a handful.
Because he does not work for Market Basket.
Market Basket, a multi-billion dollar company based in Tewksbury, does not have an official website. Devaney runs the unofficial one.
It all started three summers ago at his New Hampshire apartment. He and his wife Jocelyn wanted to make a late-night grocery run, but they didn’t know the hours of the Concord, New Hampshire, store. Nothing was posted anywhere online.
“Jocelyn said, ‘Hey, that’s kind of weird,’” he remembered. “‘Why don’t you just start a page with those hours on it?’”
Devaney made a logo, registered MyDeMoulas.com, uploaded the store locations and hours and people came in droves.
He started scanning and posting the weekly circular. He listed sales and linked to coupons. Advertising dollars started rolling in, enough for him to quit his job to work full-time on the site. Traffic has boomed to a 1.2 million unique visitors a month, an astounding amount for a one-person website.“It’s very addicting,” he said.
“It handles the traffic,” Devaney said. “People love it. And I like them to be on the site because I built it. And I feel proud of it, you know?”
His site is not masquerading as an official website. There are big disclaimers. The contact page says not to email with customer feedback. Even so, Devaney gets tens of thousands of messages per week. The most common asks for the price of cigarettes.
Tons are filled with love stories for Market Basket. Countless messages praise specific employees. One mother thanked Market Basket truck drivers for honking when her kids wave from the car. One guy wrote about how he drove home only to realize he had left a bag of groceries behind, and he went back to the store.
“[He] asked the manager if he saw the bag,” Devaney recalled. “The manager didn’t see the bag but he said, ‘Guess what? Go inside and grab whatever you need, and we’ll call it even. I see you here every week.’ That kind of stuff. The stuff that makes a $4.2 billion company still be the mom-and-pop store that they were when they started. That blows my mind that companies still do that.”
Bentley University marketing professor Andy Aylesworth said it blows his mind that Market Basket doesn’t have have some sort of web presence. “My neighborhood plumber has a web presence,” he said, adding he’s not surprised that current company executives seem out of touch with the public outcry this week.
So why doesn’t Market Basket have its own website? The company used to say it was to keep costs down. Managers said privately they were flattered that a fan would do it for them. But critics said it was a control move so then-CEO Arthur T. Demoulas could be the company’s sole voice and keep rivals from going around him.
Whatever the reason, Aylesworth said the absence of an official website during this current dispute is a public relations catastrophe.
“If somebody goes to the website to see, ‘Well, what are they saying about this?’ on what they think is the official Market Basket site, and there’s nothing there. Now they’re thinking, ‘Well, Market Basket doesn’t care about me.’ When it’s not Market Basket at all, it’s some guy running a website.”
For his part, Devaney says he’s in an awkward position. He supports Market Basket workers and he’s been posting and tweeting about their protests. But he says if the company comes out with a circular this week, he’ll post the specials too. He says he is just trying to give shoppers the information they’re looking for.
“If I could have it any way,” Devaney said wistfully, “I would love for Market Basket to buy my website, relieve me of my duty, and for them to take it over. And to give the customers what they need, because I can’t do all of it. I wish I could tell them what was on sale in two weeks. I wish I could tell them what’s going on with the company right now. But I just can’t.”
That, he said, is why most multi-billion dollar companies have official websites.
Update 7/23 10 a.m.: Within the last few hours, Market Basket has activated a corporate website at demoulasmarketbasket.com, though the official site borrows from the independent website profiled below. Watermarks show MyDeMoulas.com is the source for the images of weekly circulars posted on the official site.
This story was produced for WBUR in Boston.