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Owner of Market Basket-related website wants company to take charge

Business was slow at Market Basket last week. Customers trickled into stores across the region as employees protested the ouster of beloved CEO Arthur T. Demoulas by not stocking shelves or refusing to accept deliveries of produce.

But Michael Devaney was busier than ever, answering emails and tweets and Facebook posts for the company.

Some were normal messages – how much is a pack of cigarettes at my local Market Basket, for instance. Others – hundreds and hundreds, he said – were angry messages for the board of directors, customers claiming they’d boycott until Demoulas was reinstated.

But the full-time web developer couldn’t answer their pleas. He doesn’t work for Market Basket at all.

Devaney began his site in 2009, after he and his wife realized they couldn’t find any website with the chain’s store hours. So he registered a site name, drew a logo and entered the store addresses and hours. Then he left it alone, for a while. Today, the site supports them and one employee through ads. Every week, Devaney scans and uploads the Market Basket circular for his 1.2 million monthly visitors.

“This just happened, organically. I didn’t expect anything when it first started,” said Devaney, who lives in Candia. “I thought I’d put up a site with the hours and then go back to third shift at Wal-Mart.”

And that’s what he did. But the site kept growing more and more popular and attracting more and more traffic. By 2011, he and his wife Jocelyn were both able to quit their other full-time jobs and devote their time to maintaining and growing the online presence for Market Basket, without working for Market Basket.

He’s also working full time on new coding and development for the site itself. His day starts about 7 a.m. and never really ends, he said.

He’s on Facebook (36,800 fans), Twitter (1,300 followers) and Instagram (130 followers – but this is the newest of his social media properties).

“When do I put down the computer?” he asked Jocelyn.

“Never,” she said, sounding like she was only half-joking.

“It’s all we talk about. It’s all we do. It’s pretty annoying to her,” he said.

He had plans to add maps of the internal layout of each store, so people who were traveling could find items in an unfamiliar Market Basket, but he put those on hold during the current upheaval.

Also on hold are talks he had been having with a legal representative for the company. The conversations were vague and preliminary, he said, and ended when the warehouse workers went on strike last week. He’s been careful to place disclaimers prominently that say he is not representing the stores, but people still get confused, he said.

Sometimes, like with the hundreds of angry emails last week, it’s hard to read.

But other times, “I get what would literally be a two-page written letter talking about one employee at a store and how they helped this one customer and how the customer thinks they deserve a raise,” Devaney said. “It’s very heartwarming.”

As the story of the Market Basket strike unfolded across New England last week, and Devaney became a minor celebrity through coverage of his unofficial site, social media and business experts weighed in, saying it was shocking that a company that does $4.6 billion in revenue had no official internet presence.

Officials have said the chain abstained from the web to cut costs. 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, according to WBUR in Boston.

Last Wednesday, after Devaney appeared on a WBUR radio show about his site, an official Demoulas website appeared online.

It has a store locator, too, though at least one store included on the map closed a year ago in Nashua. It also has a digital copy of the weekly circular. But look closely at the scanned images of the sale ads: Watermarks show they were downloaded from Devaney’s site.

If the company leaders are looking for guidance to the brave new world of the internet, Devaney has some advice: “Come take this entity I have built for you, and reach out, actually connect with your customers and tell them what’s going on.

“Be real, be honest, and get someone behind these sites who can answer questions with something more than ‘I am not really Market Basket, call your local store manager.’ ”

He’s even volunteered to take that job, as an employee.

“I’m not going to turn down a job at a company where even the kid bagging groceries is saying they love their job,” he said. “And if it’s just a job for me, the stress I have now won’t be there. I can come home and talk to my wife about something that isn’t Market Basket.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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