Friday, 3 May 2013

Coles and Woolworths - the two-faced duopoly that is monopolising our money

 Picture from here

I have been on consumer watch since the late 1960s when I joined a large women's organisation in Queensland which had a strong consumer focus.  These were the days before Consumer Affairs Departments in government and on the cusp of the mass entry of women into the workforce.  In those days, we could manage a monthly ALL DAY meeting averaging attendances of 100 women in a large regional city.  This is how and where my consumer awareness was honed under the leadership of Cherith Weis.

My consumer interests have not changed since then.  I prefer to buy "Product of Australia" goods made by wholly Australian owned companies.  Forty years ago, I could just - with careful research - manage to get to the supermarket checkout with such goods in my trolley.  However, that world has long since gone.  The supermarket battlefield is now on steroids.  Adele Ferguson's article best describes the current situation.

Woolworths poker machine empire in Australia is a phenomenon - particularly since it runs more poker machines than six of the largest casinos in Las Vegas combined.    Woolworths is on its way to becoming the world's largest poker machine owner.

Metcash whose IGA grocery outlets are their most visible sign but who also supply smaller enterprises such as Foodworks is now trying to build a hotel and poker machine portfolio to try to get a few notches up the ladder in its constant battle with The Big Two.

The point of rehashing all this is to then move on to the roles of Coles and Woolworths as property developers.  The competition between Coles and Woolworths hit, what appears to the humble consumer a new height of stupidity, when Coles, through the use of a tax haven in the British Virgin Islands, purchased the Woolworths store in Neutral Bay on the inner North Shore in Sydney.

This latest hit-the-headlines enterprise is no laughing matter, though.  What all this means is that Coles and Woolworths together take most of the retail dollar in this country, one way or another.

I like to point out the 'repeat business' advantage for major corporations.  The 'repeat business' theory of getting rich and keeping it is demonstrable in gambling and alcohol and pharmaceuticals.  Woolworths and Coles have Australian consumers enchained at the most basic level of consumption: food.  Then there's discount petrol; financial services and credit cards.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.  Enchain the consumer with almost unbreakable links. Our need has become their greed.

I try to distribute my food consumption dollar: markets, IGA, local producers, independents. In spite of all this, I do find myself in a Coles store regularly - mainly because it is my nearest venue for food shopping.

I doubt my individual consumer activism has changed anything very much.  However, consumer activism has become much more sophisticated than the days of the old Darling Downs Housewives and Homemakers Association based in Toowoomba.  This is why I am so grateful for the existence of the Ethical Consumer Group under the leadership of Nick Ray.  They- assisted by the internet - are doing more to bring about change than 100 women in rural and regional Australia were able to do forty or so years ago.

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