Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Declaring war on Woolworths – and Coles!

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 3 June 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

Some time ago I decided to launch my own personal war on the big supermarket chains. The trigger was a little thing.

I went into Woolworths at Eastlakes to buy a bottle of Reschs Pilsener. Now I accept that my liking of this beer is a strange, personal, quirk. Many don’t like it. When I wrote about all this in a blog post, I was gently chided by an old friend for my bad taste in beer!

All this said, it is my taste that matters to me. So when I found the beer gone from the shelves I asked why. It appears that it no longer sold enough to warrant stocking. Then I found the same thing happening at Coles.

I snapped, for this was the last in a long line of similar straws, enough straws in fact to thatch a fair size building. Product after product that we had bought had gone. Our favourite brand of chocolate milk; we haven’t bought chocolate milk since! Pork crackling. Favourite wine brands. Cutlets with the fat still on them.

I decided to launch a campaign against the big supermarkets, using my blog to point to alternatives. Refusing to buy store brands, shopping at smaller outlets, paying a little more for service and for quality.

As you might expect, with time and other pressures I fell back into doing what was convenient, although there were some permanent changes in my shopping habits. Then something happened that re-ignited the rage.

Saturday afternoon I decided to do the main weekly shopping then rather than the normal Sunday morning round. I went first to the big Westfield shopping centre at Eastgardens, but parking was impossible. Instead, I drove to Woolworths at Eastlakes.

Frustration. A lot of the goods that I usually buy weren’t there. There were store brands in some cases, but little choice beyond that. The vegetables were bedraggled, the choice restricted. There was no rosemary, very few greens. I left with the shopping half done.

Now before you think that this is an attack on Woolworths, I have noticed the same things at Coles. I don’t know who does the buying, but they do not do it very well. Too often there are vacant shelves, too often few goods outside the store brands.

I really think that we as consumers have to fight back. Individually, we are all powerless. Together, we dictate the market place.

So how do we do this?

First, don’t buy store brands.

I am not saying make a martyr of yourself. Some store brands are very good value. There have been times when we were really broke that the store brands were important in keeping us fed within budget. Still, the store brands are a key weapon that the chains use to improve their leverage over other suppliers and their profit margins. So don’t let them use that weapon.

Second, buy local or small. Find, for example, the green grocer or butcher who you like who has good produce. Buy at the farm gate. The best chooks I have ever eaten came from a local Armidale producer.

Third, and I think that this is very important, when you find a local supplier who is good, promote them among your friends

We all know that small does not necessarily mean good. Small can mean good, but there are also some very ordinary suppliers. If you promote the good, then you also place pressure on the others.

Do not be afraid to tell your favourite stores, farms etc that you like them, giving the reasons why. Do not be afraid to tell them that you are promoting them. Do not be afraid, too, to make suggestions about things that they might do to improve.

What else can we do to improve the position?

I am running out of space, so I will keep this short.

If a chain does not stock your favourite brand, ask why. People are generally too frightened to do this, but it is important. An individual complaint has no impact. Multiple individual complaints do.

Then, and this deserves full post to give it meaning, expect the local branches of the chains to act local. Too often, the centralized decision making within the chains means that local management has little power. This needs to be turned around.


Bruce said...

Foodland in South Australia has been taking market share off of Coles and Wooldworths for a few years now. My regular Foodland is massive, and stocks a wide range of items well beyond their store brand items. Which keeps me pretty happy.

In fact, they have a Muesli in stock that since before finding it last year, I'd not been able to find in Coles (or Woolies) since 1998.

The produce has a lot more local veg, and the meat is predominantly South Australian. Although I do have a butcher and green grocer in the Central Markets that I frequent.

I've even noticed Enoki mushrooms in Foodland recently, which I haven't seen in a supermarket since 1998. Although there is a mushroom shop in the Central Markets that has the best 'shrooms.

If it's not the lack of items in Coles and Woolies that gets to me, it's how they are all starting to look that same (to the extent that I've found myself momentarily forgetting which Woolies I'm in.)


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Bruce, good to hear from you. I don't know Foodlands, but it sounds wonderful.

Jim Belshaw said...

And I absolutely agree about looking the same.