Market Bastard  

    To hell in a market basket

Demoulas Market Basket is an odd one.  A small chain mostly centered in eastern Massachusetts, but slowly expanding as they manage to obtain more property opportunities.  They've had some rough times over their history, including bitter legal disputes over ownership of the company, and apparently it's not over yet.  Meanwhile, the brand has gained a large and faithful customer following primarily because they manage to substantially undercut just about *every* other player in the market area on prices.  A typical $100 grocery bill anywhere else would probably weigh in at $80 or less at Market Basket, and New Englanders being the tightwads they are, totally love it.  And it's not like MB sells crap, either -- they've got their own house brand of many foods along with mainstream stuff, and the quality of it is perfectly fine.  So nominally, aside from occasional chain-wide shutdowns when corporate implosion seems imminent, they're doing a pretty good job.

Except in one typical area, of course.  Some of their staff are still laboring under the traditional falsehoods and prejudice about bare feet, and after something like a year and a half of my trying to work on them they still never managed to turn that around company-wide.  My journey with them began as an attempt to be proactive, with a completely unproductive call to their "community relations" department, who exhibited the typical "health code" brainwashing.  Wrong answer.  Really, the people tasked with fielding questions of that sort should know the *facts* before they randomly spout off utter crap.

So I decided to simply visit the corporate offices in Tewksbury and drop off some information, and ask for escalation.  I walked in and handed the receptionist one of the Massachusetts health department letters from the SBL site, along with some contact info, asking that it be delivered to appropriate people up the corporate ladder with a request to get back to me once it was understood.  The receptionist seemed somewhat dubious, and probably tossed it in the trash instead of passing it into the corporate wheels.  Real professional, yep.  But having shot a ball into their court, I didn't pursue it for some months afterward.

Over the course of that time, during relatively infrequent visits, on-location responses to my unshod state were somewhat mixed.  Most of the shopping runs were entirely harassment-free, possibly because nobody who cared actually noticed.  Employees who clearly did notice generally didn't say anything and were as cordial as they would be to anyone.  One afternoon a manager, a sort of older guy, approached me and started mumbling the typical "you need shoes" stuff.  This sort of surprised me, as I'd been through that location some number of times before, but I think he was *more* surprised by the fact that he got immediate pushback on the subject.  He apparently wasn't expecting to have a bunch of facts and logic *and* one of the health-department letters laid on him, and his argument seemed to sort of crumble under the counterargument.  He didn't seem at all sure whether to push the matter or not, and sort of shuffled away from me in a kind of shifty-eyed way.  A little later he came back and sort of sheepishly said "well, I called Operations and they said since we don't have a sign at the door, they guess it's okay for now." Case closed for the moment, I thought, and finished my shopping.

This was my incentive to aim higher than an in-store encounter, though.  The manager also gave me contact info for who he'd talked to at their Operations department, so I called in to remind them that I had tried to deliver some information in the past, and asked if I could present some updated thinking via email.  The assistant I talked said sure, and gave me her own email address.  Now, Demoulas' online situation is sort of funny.  For some reason they don't have their own corporate website, which is a distinct anomaly in this day and age.  Apparently a group of regular customers maintains an alternate website for them called "mydemoulas", with information about store locations and some coupon stuff, but nothing genuinely official.  The Demoulas staff *can* receive email at the corporate headquarters, though, so I went ahead and formed up some thoughts for them.


To: lehaviland@demoulasmarketbasket.com
Subject: discrimination issue?
Date: Fri, 30 Sep 2016 10:40:23 -0500

Hello, I was pointed toward your department by the assistant store
manager at your Wilmington location, after an interesting interaction
with him earlier this week.  I went in for some shopping in the same
manner as I go almost everywhere, without shoes, and they evidently
took exception to this.  Mind you, I know this is common, but it is
based on fallacious assumptions which are long overdue for being
laid to rest.

Please do not simply dismiss this, but forward it around your upper
levels where policy is discussed and make it clear that they may be
running on incorrect information and misleading the public.  It is
actually illegal to misrepsent the law, which saying anything about
"health codes" constitutes.

I actually tried to contact your corporate offices back in June to
get ahead of this little problem, actually stopping by Billerica in
person to hand some information to whoever was at the main desk in
your lobby.  She probably just threw the material away instead of
forwarding it to the right department -- did any of your higher
levels actually see that?  It was a reprint of a letter from the
Massachusetts state board of health about the lack of any rules/
regulations concerning bare feet in food establishments, and some
text of relevant anti-discrimination law with more explanatory text,
suggestions, and pointers to helpful websites on the flip side.

The manager was surprised when I told him I had tried to make that
contact, but he called into your department for clarification as what
I was telling him apparently made him stop and think about it for a
bit.  This is the point I'm trying to make to everyone at all levels:
there is nothing wrong with bare feet, any more than bare hands or
head [and if you're inclined to counterarguments about sanitation,
customers' *hands* present a far greater hazard].  What I'm hoping is
that Demoula's, as a smaller and more community-minded chain, can
as a corporation get past these outdated misconceptions from the
sixties and be more welcoming and less discriminatory to its diverse
customer base.  In other words, becoming "barefoot-friendly" as part
of that.  There isn't any distinction to make -- bare feet have no
impact on health, safety, liability, food, or even social standing.
You can research this for yourselves all over the internet, and I
earnestly encourage you to do so.  Starting at barefooters.org is
a good way to begin.

I'm sure your publicity people could take any such policy change,
if needed, and put a positive, community-minded spin on being even
more welcoming than ever.  I like Market Basket.  I felt really
bad for you folks during that whole "which Arthur is it this week"
episode and was delighted when it got sorted out.  I look forward
to when you have your own website constructed and your own avenue
for public statements, because I think Demoula's has a lot to offer.
Getting harassed over bare feet seems counter to this, stodgy and
over-corporatized and downright customer-hostile in some ways, and not
what I'd consider part of social responsibility.  Managers might as
well walk up to random strangers and tell them that they're ugly and
need to leave the store, for all the professionalism that would imply.

Experienced barefooters know exactly what they're doing -- there are
more of the supposed "hazards" in the parking lots they walk across
with no shoes than inside the stores.  Furthermore, the feared legal
action about foot injury is a laughable idea -- such a case could
never be won and would probably be thrown out as frivolous.  Check
with your legal staff.  I would be more worried about discrimination
suits, frankly.  Consider the suggestions for signs out front -- the
"bare feet welcome at customer's own risk" model, if you want to be
completely covered on that score.

With the rise in general knowledge about the health *benefits* of going
barefoot, fueled in no small part by the internet, you will find a lot
more people wanting to adopt this lifestyle change in all of their
daily activities, without getting singled out as some kind of freaks.

And for the record, the store floors actually feel really *nice*.
Let people enjoy that, they'll appreciate you all the more for it.

Thanks for your serious consideration,

I supplied email and phone contact information, and by a couple of months later had still heard absolutely nothing in the way of a reply.  They simply wanted to ignore it, not think about it, and not even have the conversation.  Then things started to get a little more interesting.  On a quick visit a little later I received no objections, but just as I was just walking out of the building I spotted a largish guy clearly dressed as a manager, walking rapidly and purposefully past the registers and staring right at me through the front windows.  He looked really steamed, and it was pretty obvious that he was trying to specifically come after me.  But I had already cleared the front entry area and was heading across the lot to the car, so he stopped near the door and continued to watch me walk away, and then turned around to go back inside.  A narrow escape!  I figured this guy was going to be a problem if I went back to that location.

My recollection of the exact timeline through all of this interaction is a bit jumbled because it all happened quite slowly, but contained a few salient events.  On the next visit maybe a month later [because really, I don't go food shopping that often] there was a new item at the front door: a prominent "shirts and shoes required" sign.  It was just a printed piece of paper, white on red, nothing with corporate branding or anything, but I knew immediately who had put it there.  I complained about this at the store's customer-service desk, and talked to Operations again later.  This time I had a fairly pleasant chat with one of the folks up there who had been looking into the barefoot running thing himself, and seemed to understand the benefits, but continued to toe some vaguely defined party line about "safety" in a somewhat apologetic way.  In the meantime, a little research by myself and others found that NO other Market Basket locations sported any such signs, so this was clearly a one-off by one guy who has some huge personal bug up his butt about bare feet.

I felt that it was rather inappropriate that he should get away with that kind of open prejudice without any consultation up the administrative chain, and decided to simply continue visiting that store as usual.  Sure enough, this same manager eventually spotted me and did everything he could to make my life miserable.  I had a pair of china-flats in my pocket that day, just in case, but he came on as so confrontationally unreasonable to me that he didn't even deserve the courtesy of me putting them on.  After declaring refusal to let me with my fairly full cart check out until I "found some shoes", he wandered off and at that point I didn't care if he had some notion of calling the cops or whatever.  He was going to be held accountable for this bullshit.  Fortunately, I knew how to call into main Operations on the spot and ask them to fix this RIGHT NOW, and as I stood around in the dairy aisle waiting for the result I could hear when they paged the guy into the office to get on the phone.  About 20 minutes later, likely some sort of deliberate "punishment" delay as the conversation could not have possibly taken that long, he finally came back and said I could finish shopping that day but MUST have shoes the next time.  If there was to *be* a next time into that location at all, as this guy was clearly some kind of psycho against feet and didn't want to learn any shred of truth.

For the nonce I avoided that location and its resident bigot, but continued to shop without issue at some others.  Then on my way into another store one morning, some grouchy older woman tending the plant stand *outside* the front door shot some comment at me about needing shoes as I walked by.  "Because of OSHA", or something, clearly forgetting what the "O" means.  I expressed disagreement and that I was fine and all set and doing no wrong, and handed her one of my freshly-minted Out Barefoot cards and encouraged more research into the facts.  After an incident-free shopping run inside I came back out and she harassed me *again*, also appealing to some white-shirted manager who happened to be walking by on his way out to lunch.  He offered some vague "supposed to have shoes" rhetoric to make a show of supporting his employee, but his heart and conviction clearly weren't in it.

I'd had enough of this, though, and it was time for another round of attempting to reach out to them in stronger terms. After calling the headquarters again and getting a couple more email addresses of who I hoped were their legal staff and higher management in Operations, I crafted a formal grievance against all of what had happened to date.  They actually don't have legal counsel on staff; the best they seemed able to offer was some administrative assistant who would field any liability claims should they arise.  I guess that rarely if ever happens, given their lack of ready "risk management" capability to proactively tackle that aspect head-on. 


To: sepieslak@demoulasmarketbasket.com
Cc: jmarquis@demoulasmarketbasket.com
Subject: shoe issue: new information
Date: Fri, 19 May 2017 12:37:54 -0500

This raises a complaint/issue which I have tried to address in the
past, starting about a year ago.  This email is long, but important
to understand fully -- please take the time to read all of it and
make sure the right key people have the necessary perspective.
I have split it into rough sections:

    problem overview
    background
    legal aspects
    specific problem employees
    action items

=== Overview ===

I generally avoid wearing shoes, for health and comfort and safety
reasons.  There is a large and growing body of knowledge available
online concerning the benefits of this, as you will find.  There is
also quite a bit of unfounded prejudice and resistance to adopting
a barefoot lifestyle as you well know, some of which centers around
stores and retail establishments.  The concerns commonly voiced as
arguments against going unshod are all invalid, especially for a
person experienced with the lifestyle.  Health, food, liability,
safety, even social standing -- all completely unrelated.

I go hiking and climb mountains without shoes.  I walk over bits of
broken glass quite frequently, with no more concern about injury than
I would have with any other type of small gravel.  My feet are well
conditioned to easily withstand such things.  I maintain a keen
awareness about larger and potentially injurious objects and avoid
them, as anyone would.  And yet ignorant people who feel it necessary
to take unstudied exception to this can't seem to give me any credit
for being able to manage my own situation, even in far more benign
environments such as spotless grocery-store aisles.  [Ironically,
when they meet me on rough trails such as in the Blue Hills the other
weekend, then I'm somehow "brave" and "tough" and "amazing" instead.]

Please bring yourselves up to speed on the facts around this, to
understand the positive health aspects and why "...but there might
be things on the floor!" is a specious argument at best.  Start by
visiting this simple website:

     http://outbarefoot.org/

and follow some of the links you find there.  Those are some of the
more comprehensive resources available online.  Also realize that I
am certainly not the only practitioner of this in our area, and
in a way I speak here for all of them in my effort to bring truly
sensible and non-discriminatory thinking to your organization.

=== Background ===

I tried to reach out to your company about a year ago, by dropping
off some information at your corporate headquarters.  The desk person
there probably just threw it away.  Later I followed up with an email
exchange with some of your operations staff, fielded at first by
Laurie Haviland, but in that process also spoke with Mike Meuse and
Joe Schmidt.  Mike had been looking into the barefoot running trend,
and seemed to understand exactly where I was coming from.  DeMoula's
chose to never bother answering that email in kind, but I made sure
to follow up with some phone conversations which I found somewhat
inconclusive and unsatisfactory.  That prior email I sent explained
more of my rationale, and I can forward another copy if you need it.

Meanwhile, I had an absolutely horrendous interaction with personnel
in your Wilmington location, described later.  Fortunately I now knew
how to reach your operations department to help get it rectified at
the time.  But in the vast majority of occasions where I've shopped
at any Market Basket there has been absolutely no problem with my
choices and my feet, and certainly no undue risk to myself from
objects on the floor, people pushing carts, or any such concerns.
[Frankly, if someone's close enough to me with a cart to affect my
feet, I've already either moved away or stopped them long since to
maintain distance.  So that's another 100% specious argument, even
for your often-crowded aisles.]

I even do my part to aid store operations and the intelligent choices
offered to customers -- I'll bring a cart in from the lot instead of
taking one from the line inside, and often utilize the empty recycle
boxes up front to bring my purchases home [that's a great idea, by
the way, as it clearly reduces your own recycle load and provides nice
boxes for anyone who might need them.]  I do all this confidently and
competently, without shoes and in all weathers, and I'm fine with it.
I'll point out here that nobody takes any issue while I'm walking
through a parking lot, where there are certainly more potential
hazards, so it's rather ridiculous to worry any *more* about the
interior of the building.  Think about it: I am more likely to rip
my hand open on one of the staples in those boxes, than I am to
injure a foot anywhere on the premises.

A couple of days ago there was another absolutely stupid incident of
discrimination, prompting me to contact you again and this time,
file formal complaints against the relevant employees [again, below].
Those people particularly need to learn what precisely it means to
be a "barefooter", and why there's nothing wrong with it.

=== Legal issues ===

The shoes I keep available, if someone too ignorant to know better
is completely insistent about it, tend to turn most commercial tile
flooring into a skating rink -- very slippery, in contrast to the
surefootedness I get from my own soles.  If I am forced to put those
on, I stand at much *greater* risk of a slip-and-fall incident, not
to mention it being a far less comfortable or pleasurable shopping
experience, and since the situation was forced by the store now *it*
can be held liable if something happens.  If they had simply left me
alone, there would be no liability situation.  So by trying to impose
an otherwise meaningless change "for my safety", a retailer increases
its own risk.  This may seem counterintuitive, but it's true.

Are you aware that there are people who *need* to stay barefoot for
podiatric reasons, and who experience pain and loss of mobility from
any type of footwear?  They do exist, ordered *by their doctors* to
avoid shoes as completely as possible.  Not only would forcing such
patrons into shoes compromise their safety and comfort as described
above, now you are getting into ADA violations.  Another reason to
not try and second-guess anyone's clear choice in these matters.

Interactions with specific problem employees follow.

=== Personnel: John O'Dea, manager, Wilmington ===

This has to be the most stubborn backlash I've experienced just about
anywhere, and it is clear that Mr. O'Dea has some *personal* strong
prejudice about feet that he let completely get in the way of his
professionalism.  On my last occasion at that location he and his
assistant manager came up and were acting like some sort of security
guards, and I was some kind of raving terrorist.  Absolutely would
not listen to reason -- I felt like I was trying to explain paganism
to Mike Pence.  That day he *took my full cart away* and pushed it
into the cold-storage back room, refusing to check me out "until
I found some shoes".  Where, in the dairy aisle where I was now
stranded??  Rather than saddle his personnel with the task of
returning a batch of items, I called into Tewksbury operations to
have this sorted out.  They got him on the phone fairly promptly,
but to finish out his petty power trip that afternoon he deliberately
kept me waiting where I was for a good 20 minutes before finally
returning my cart so I could check out and leave.  This was a complete
waste of time for myself and him, not to mention rather inexcusable
customer-service behavior on his part.

That was in early January, and yes, no shoes then either.  I have not
been back to that location since -- especially on seeing more clear
evidence that Mr. O'Dea has some personal vendetta about this, in
the red signs he posted in the entrance doors to the Wilmington store
concerning shoes.  Have you seen those?  They're obnoxious.  No other
location has any such thing, so this action on his part was clearly
not something directed by the corporation.  I do hope he was strongly
reprimanded for his actions that day.  Maybe he's due up for that
early retirement package??  Really, bigots like him are a liability
to your company.

=== Personnel: "Wendy", associate, Reading / Walkers Brook ===

This was the more recent incident, on 17-May.  Note that I've been
in that location several times without incident.  But on my way in,
Wendy who was staffing the *flower stand* outside the store doors
took it upon herself to harass me.  She's probably not even authorized
to address customers in such contexts.  On asking her why she believed
what she did, she muttered something about "OSHA" which of course
is completely false.  Perhaps she needs a reminder as to what the "O"
in OSHA actually means -- employees, not patrons.  Once inside the
store I completed my shopping without incident, but had to pass by
Wendy again on the way to the car -- she was still very sour about it,
but tried to cut off my attempts to simply inform her with something
like "I'm not going to argue about this".  Well, if she doesn't want
an argument with a customer, maybe she shouldn't *start* one in the
first place.

In all of these cases, I believe that I have tried to only politely
educate the personnel in question and help them to move past the
misinformation they appear to have.  Do you fully grasp what it feels
like to be discriminated against?  Remember those days when you saw
the class bully headed straight for you, and you got that little knot
in your guts that said you were about to not have a very fun time?
That's what it feels like.  It certainly does not promote healthy
relations between proprietors and patrons, and such an encounter can
have can have lasting adverse emotional effects.  You cannot predict
what those effects will be in any given person, and it is certainly
best to strictly avoid causing them in the first place.  For example,
I'm not going to forget Mr. O'Dea's arrogant rent-a-cop attitude for
a very long time.

=== Action items ===

What DeMoula's can do in this situation is best outlined by the
"guidelines for merchants" page at that same website:

     http://outbarefoot.org/guide.html

which includes references to some premises-liability information at
Nolo.  Executive summary: Protect your own legal standing and avoid
these confrontations, which will otherwise keep happening over and
over and have no effect other than reducing your community goodwill.
Don't try to play "shoe police" where it's not wanted or needed.

You should get this text in front of some C-level people to help them
understand their risk profile, as non-intuitive as it may seem.  Land
this on Arthur's desk if you have to; we all have to understand why
a little education and acceptance is preferable to legal actions over
retailer-complicit injury, discrimination cases, or ADA issues.  The
time for old party-line thinking is over, especially given today's
political climate which has made everyone take a step back.

Personally, I would love to see John O'Dea's unwelcoming signs
replaced with a couple of the nice brown ones.  I would even be happy
to hand-deliver a few to some of the local stores, which I have
printed onto some nice heavy paper stock.  While that's a semi-
serious offer to help out, you can probably just as easily email
your own appropriate graphics to stores for local printing anyway.

Note that this entire story is a matter of public record, so please
consider the community relations aspects of your responses.  I would
prefer to continue by email, but please choose whatever channel you
find most convenient.

Thank you

In a followup phone call, their VP of operations was also made aware that this was going on, but I don't know if it ever managed to hit the desk of whichever "Arthur" was at the company helm that week.  It would be charitable to assume that their continued lack of actual response was due to plain old internal disorganization, coupled with general lack of skill with regard to handling email.  Meanwhile, my occasional shopping trips would continue under my preferred status quo, with any pushback necessary beginning with "why don't you call Tewksbury and ask David McLean why he's never had the courtesy to get back to me about this".

_H*   170608

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