Sunday, November 27, 2005

The attorney general in Massachusetts, Tom Reilly, has spent the past year arming for a 2006 election battle with incumbent Governor Mitt Romney. So it's likely that Shaw's Supermarkets isn't on his Christmas card list; because during the past week and a half, they dropped him smack in the middle of a Thanksgiving fiasco.

Here's the deal: Whole Foods Market, a chain of supermarkets specializing in natural and organic foods, decided to open its stores on Thanksgiving Day. Naturally, they advertised this in advance; and when Shaw's executives caught wind of the plan, they drafted an open letter to Attorney General Reilly and the police chiefs of eleven Massachusetts cities and towns advising that Whole Foods was planning to break the law.

Massachusetts still has several blue laws on its books. "Blue laws" are dated from the Puritan origins of the thirteen colonies, basically imposing religious morality on the populace -- in this case, prohibiting most businesses from opening on a day when Puritans believe you should stay home with your family. While I happen to agree with the sentiment, I don't agree that it should be enforced by armed policemen; and I find it incredibly ironic that this is happening in the first state to sanction gay marriage.

Shaw's complained on two bases. "Besides disadvantaging competitors, a Whole Foods opening would harm consumers, due to lack of choice in the marketplace for consumers to shop and compare prices for the best deal." Now obviously, Shaw's could give a damn about consumer choice in the marketplace; but you can't appreciate just how stupid that argument is unless you live in Massachusetts and know both stores.

The two companies aren't competitors. Whole Foods doesn't sell Coke, or Oreos, or Honey Nut Cheerios, or any of your favorite brands; it's an organic supermarket, tailored specifically to affluent communities. Shaw's, on the other hand, is a ghetto supermarket. Their competition is Market Basket, and the only race is to attract the highest portion of food stamp recipients. This letter was like Snoop Dogg bitching that Luciano Pavarotti was stealing his fans.

So with nothing to gain but a reputation for corporate PMS, Shaw's shoved a public spectacle onto Tom Reilly's desk. He couldn't disregard the law; so to his credit, he made the smart move and embraced it. He told the Boston Globe that tradition outweighed convenience, and that he thought workers should spend Thanksgiving at home with their families. It's not a popular opinion -- but it's always better to look wrong than to look weak. Instead of appearing to be a sockpuppet or a reluctant participant in coercion, he took responsibility and made it seem like enforcing the law was his decision. It was a smart political move.

Unfortunately, the Chinese merchants don't read the Boston Globe. The owners of all six Super 88 Markets opened their doors on Thanksgiving Day; and although Quincy police ordered one location to close before noon, the others remained open. Obviously, Reilly will have to impose fines on the stores, which will almost certainly alienate him from a significant portion of that close-knit ethnic community.

You have to wonder whether Shaw's has a public relations director; and if so, whether he's incompetent, asleep, or possibly a covert Romney agent. This is exactly the sort of fiasco he's paid to prevent; not only does Shaw's look like a corporate tattletale to its blue-collar customer base (currently being wooed by Wal-Mart), but Shaw's has now also earned the ire of an attorney general and would-be governor.

Shaw's loses face. Whole Foods loses money. Super 88 will face fines, and Reilly will look like the bad guy. Frankly, the only guy who wins here is Mitt Romney. And I'm voting for him. Happy Thanksgiving!


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