Monday, July 16, 2012

Supermarket investigation reveals a false choice

Zoya Sheftalovich and Elise Dalley of CHOICE, Australia, discuss the pressure that big supermarkets place on their suppliers – and what this means for consumers. 

Australia has a highly-concentrated supermarket sector. Our two big players, Coles and Woolworths, control more than 70% of the market. 

Anecdotally, CHOICE had been hearing for a while that relationships between the supermarkets and their suppliers and manufacturers were strained. People were ringing us to complain of their favourite products disappearing from supermarkets, and we became aware of a trend – seemingly successful product lines were being squeezed off the shelves by home brand products.

As a consumer watchdog, there was some reticence in the office about us looking into these reports – surely supermarkets increasing their home brand product lines would be beneficial to consumers, as long as these cheaper products provided good value and quality for consumers. But our members were increasingly upset, and we knew we had to investigate.

Extreme tactics

After asking our members to tell us about products they had noticed disappearing off the shelves, we compiled a list of dozens. We then got on the phone, calling manufacturers for several days.

We heard the same story again and again: yes, product lines had been deleted, with little or no notice, and for seemingly no reason. Yes, tactics leading up to the deletion had been extreme. No, I won’t go on the record. No, I can’t talk to you in more detail. No, you can’t use my name. I need the supermarkets, and I cannot afford to antagonise them.

And it was not just small manufacturers that were feeling the pain. Several large-scale operators spoke obliquely about the harsh Australian grocery market, but clammed up when it came to giving details.

But perseverance paid off, and several sources finally agreed to tell us their stories off the record. One even agreed to have his name put to his allegations.
What we heard was terrible in its implications for manufacturers and suppliers, but was also detrimental to consumers – the supermarkets seemingly had no qualms about using their buying power to push suppliers to the brink, and the number of people we spoke to who were either on the precipice of losing their businesses, or had already done so, was frightening. The competition from the supermarkets was wiping out the competition altogether.

Worrying signs

From demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars for marketing, to setting unrealistic sales targets, to hiding products behind vertical columns in store and releasing their own, home brand products in deceptively similar packaging, the tactics used by the supermarkets were worrying.

Was this what consumers wanted? We didn’t think so.

When we published our series of investigations looking at the situation on the shelves, the copycat tactics of home brand products, and the emerging issue of incognito home brand wine, the response was resounding. We received messages of support from a huge number of our members.

And over a thousand people voted in our poll for the best (or is it worst?) copycat product. The winner?  Coles home brand sunscreen, which came in a tube that looked uncannily like the one put out by Australia’s national cancer NGO, the Cancer Council, the proceeds of which go to cancer research.

When two supermarkets control such a large share of the grocery market, no product is safe, and the consumer is not always king.

You can read the full details of our supermarket investigation here:

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