Our dirty secret: we actually love massive supermarkets
Of all the silly moments in his career, Sylvester Stallone’s turn in Demolition Man as a good-cop-turned-bad who is incarcerated, cryogenically frozen and then thawed out to fight his nemesis, serial killer Wesley Snipes, must rank as the high point of Sly’s cinematic stupidity.
There is however one accidentally prescient moment in the movie - in the futuristic dystopia of Los Angeles, a war within capitalism has left Taco Bell as the last corporation standing.
Substitute the word Woolworths for Taco Bell and you could film Demolition Man II in Australia. On current projections, by 2015 Woolies will have bought the NRL and AFL, the excellent Lebanese food chain Brothers Kebabs and the popular rock bands Powderfinger and The Veronicas.
For the past few months both Woolworths and Coles have featured in a double bill of talkback venom, bagged throughout the land as rapacious, predatory-pricing behemoths which roam the suburbs establishing new beachheads by discounting like billio to destroy small local businesses, then jacking up prices once the competition has been eliminated.
Even their superficially noble attempts to offer savings to consumers - such as last month’s petrol coupon war where 10 cents was sliced from the price of every litre of fuel for every $100 spent at their stores - were denounced as a nasty bit of corporate trickery, funded by jacking up prices in the supermarket aisle.
Coles must be breathing a sigh of relief then as Woolworths has now spun off into its own special orbit of evil by flagging plans to move not only into hardware but to have a crack at the boutique beer market too.
All this in a week when it posted a handy $1.8 billion profit, in the middle of the biggest economic downturn in more than 20 years.
Woolies’ hardware plans pose a direct threat both to neighbourhood hardware stores and the super-chain Bunnings.
The former group shouldn’t provide Woolies with too big a public relations headache. There aren’t many of those Happy Days-style corner stores left anyway. And that’s mainly because of the juggernaut that is Bunnings, which finds itself in the rare position of being a monolithic corporate entity that still enjoys an extraordinary level of affection from its customers. And anything which damages Bunnings could upset the collective male psyche of the nation, as going to Bunnings is like yoga for men, where you lapse into a tranquil zen-like state as you wander every aisle, only to return to consciousness at home later with the question: “Why on earth did I buy this damned spirit level anyway?”
But there’s a more pertinent psychological point to be made, and it’s one which plays massively in Woolworths’ favour.
It’s this. Most of the high-pitched whining you hear from the likes of Alan Jones, and the other talkback folks who are whipping up the anti-Woolies hysteria, is completely at odds with the day-in, day-out behaviour of about 99 per cent of Australians.
The attacks on Coles and, now moreso, Woolworths, strike me as a classic example of squeaky wheel syndrome, where talkback creates storms of anger from people who aren’t really representative of the Australian mainstream.
That’s not to dismiss the evidence of predatory pricing tactics aimed at destroying small businesses, or geographic price discrimination, where suburbs with fewer competitors end up paying more at the checkout because the majors are under no pressure to keep prices down.
Economists and competition experts such as the University of NSW academic Professor Frank Zumbo have done a thorough job documenting the often shameful behaviour of the supermarket chains in their systematic domination of the ‘burbs.
But the simple point is that most families, by their actions, clearly couldn’t care less.
The motivating desire for busy families when it comes to shopping is convenience. Price only becomes an issue when people feel that they are really being ripped off. And unless people are either completely stupid, or simply gluttons for punishment who keep returning to the scene of their fleecing on a weekly basis, the only conclusion you can draw is that they are happy to shop at a place which offers the widest possible choice at a generally acceptable price, all in the one spot.
Ask yourself the question. If you have 90 minutes to pick up one kid from school and the other from childcare and drop kid number one at soccer practice and then do the shopping with kid number two, pick up kid number one again, then get home and throw dinner together in time for the arrival of the domestically-challenged man in your life, what are you going to do?
Get your quaint wicker basket and stroll up the high street, loyally visiting the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer and the continental deli, or tear into Woolies and chuck a couple of hundred bucks’ worth of stuff into a whopping great trolley in one frantic hit?
The story of competition in Australia is told in a flawed narrative, where it’s the ACCC slugging it out with the big end of town. In reality the ACCC is slugging it out with ordinary Australian families, who through their actions demonstrate that they aren’t that misty-eyed about notions of good-old-days shopping, and just want to get in and out of the (one) store as fast as they can.
Woolies will obviously keep on copping it. The abuse makes about as much sense as the fulmination over Pacific Brands laying off almost 2000 workers earlier this year. While the sackings were badly handled, it was ludicrous and unfair that CEO Sue Morphet became the villain of the piece, berated on radio by the very callers who had probably spent the previous weekend at a Direct Factory Outlet, gleefully telling their friends how they’d bought two pairs of shoes and a nice new sundress for fifty bucks. The public, not Sue Morphet, sent textile jobs offshore. And it’s the public that’s voting with its trolleys in the supermarket debate.
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