Activists take aim at Coles and Woolworths with in-store fake tags

Here in Australia, consumers have taken to calling out the supermarkets instead. Photo: Grassroots Action Network Tasmania

Here in Australia, consumers have taken to calling out the supermarkets instead. Photo: Grassroots Action Network Tasmania Photo: Grassroots Action Network Tasmania

A group of Australians fed up with surging supermarket bills are taking extraordinary guerrilla action against two of the nation’s biggest retailers.

In recent days, faux Woolworths and Coles “special” tags have popped up in supermarkets across the country, and have been shared further on social media.

“We’ve made over $1 billion in profits whilst you can’t afford bread,” one of the tags with Woolworths’ branding says.

“Our right to profit is more important than your right to food. That’s capitalism, baby,” a fake Coles tag says.

The fake tags were made by Grassroots Action Network Tasmania (GRANT) – a protest group that describes itself as “committed to effecting systemic change” – and can be downloaded from its website. 

GRANT spokespeople Amy Booth and Danny Carney told The New Daily that life has been tough for Australians in recent months, and the protest was intended to show people who are struggling that they were not alone.

“People are kept in poverty by the government, wages go backwards, and the cost of everything spirals – people are desperate, and people die,” the pair said.

“We’re sick of people feeling isolated and at fault, when what we are facing are structural problems.

Our protest was designed to help people realise their struggles are shared.”

Bumper profits

Last month, Coles and Woolworths each announced bumper annual profits of more than $1 billion, even as Australian households try to ride out the spike in cost-of-living pressures.

Earlier this year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released a report that found corporate profits had contributed more to global inflation than wage growth.

“Companies in Australia and many other industrial countries have taken advantage of the disruptions, shortages and desperation of the pandemic to push up profit margins far beyond normal levels,” Dr Jim Stanford, director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, said of the findings.

“In Australia, corporate profits reached their highest share of GDP ever in 2022, and that has been the leading cause of the current cost-of-living crisis.”

The University of Wollongong says 800,000 Australians are experiencing food insecurity. That number was expected to rise this year, and beyond.

After a post of the protest tags on display in supermarkets in Tasmania was shared online, many people leapt to show their support for the guerrilla action.

People are ‘being screwed’

Ms Booth and Mr Carney said the support indicated that people “understand they’re being screwed by the two big supermarkets”.

They know it’s unfair that they make billions in profits while people steal or starve themselves to survive,” they said.

They know it’s unfair that it would take a supermarket worker 100 years to make as much as their CEO makes in one. People have had enough and we hope it galvanises people to take all kinds of action in their own communities.”

Artistic licence

And the Tasmanian group isn’t alone.

Recently, a Sydney artist known only as NotNot also took aim at the two big chains. After dressing up as a tradie, he took it on himself to alter advertising inside supermarkets.

For Woolworths it was: “The price gouge people”, and for Coles: “Down Down, Morality Down”.

“It’s the job of an artist to hold a mirror to society, and if Coles and Woolies don’t like the look of their reflection, they should probably change what they’re doing,” NotNot told 9News.

The tough pill to swallow

Retail expert Gary Mortimer said the big retailers’ record profits might seem like a lot of money – but they weren’t necessarily.

“If you look at Coles’ results, for example, just over a billion dollars in profit, and that might seem like a lot. But essentially, they had to sell $41 billion worth of goods to get to a billion dollars in profit,” he said.

“If you put that in context, that would be like your kids running a lemonade stand all weekend, getting $41 in pocket money, and you immediately take off them $40 to cover the cost of the little stand, the lemons, the signage and their table.”

However, Professor Mortimer said he understood numbers as big as a billion were confronting.

This was especially true as shoppers saw the price of grocery items rising and people struggled to put food on their tables.

He also said he understood why frustrated people might choose activism, but said he couldn’t condone vandalism.

Another person who appreciates GRANT’s tags and NotNot’s slogans is Macquarie University economic lecturer Dr Prashan Karunaratne. He, like many others, is feeling the pressures of the cost-of-living crisis.

He said there was more to consider when people looked at the supermarkets’ record profits.

As the cost of living bites, people cut down on spending. Instead of eating out, people eat in, so they buy more groceries.

However, he said those in the lower middle class would always be hit hardest by inflation, because even shopping at the “cheapest level” took a chunk of their disposable income.

Also, technology has made it far more accessible for us to stick to the big chains.

Smaller supermarkets and grocers sometimes don’t offer online ordering or delivery, both of which are popular with the time-poor. This shift could help explain the huge profits.

Time to break up to duopoly? 

Australia’s supermarket duopoly means Coles and Woolworths hold the power and enjoy little serious competition.

However, Dr Karunaratne said there was a way to make the situation fairer for Australian consumers.

The power of Coles and Woolworths meant they could negotiate discounts for themselves with farmers and wholesalers, he said.

In New Zealand, when a similar issue was discovered – with a duopoly that was found to be working against consumers and food producers – a Grocery Commissioner was installed.

“They’ve forced the two big players to give everyone access to their wholesale prices and if they don’t, they have to sell it at competitive prices,” Dr Karunaratne said.

He said for smaller players to compete fairly with the bigger players, government intervention was needed. More incentives were also needed to lure more companies to the Australian market.

In statements to The New Daily, both Coles and Woolworths acknowledged that many consumers were doing it tough.

“We know cost-of-living pressures are front of mind for our customers and are always looking for ways to help their dollars stretch further,” a Coles spokesperson said.

Woolworths offered a similar sentiment.

“We’re acutely aware of the pressure that’s being placed on Australian families through cost-of-living increases, whether they are our customers or our team members,” a spokesperson said.

“And we’re doing more every day to help customers spend less with us.”

Whether or not the supermarket duopoly is broken up, there are things consumers can do.

Coles and Woolworths might make up the majority, but other independent retailers are still available.

“I guess we need to vote with our feet as well and not just complain, but act on it as well,” Dr Karunaratne said.

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