Choice to take fight to major supermarkets

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 10th July 2009

Leading consumer group Choice, still reeling from the shock axing of Grocery Choice a mere five days before it was due to launch, is planning to focus all their attention on the supermarket giants in a bid to bring down grocery prices, according to a report in The Australian.

The organisation appeared to be taken for granted by the Federal Government who, after giving them the task of turning around the fledgling Grocery Choice website, turned their back on them and the price monitoring website less than a week before launch without even informing the consumer advocates.

The controversial site was launched last year, with the ACCC taking the reins following their Grocery Price Inquiry. Praised as an initial success by the Government due to the number of hits in its first month, the site quickly lost the interest of the Australian public. As a result, the $13 million site – criticised as irrelevant due to being too slow to provide data, too general and too focussed on the major chains – was taken over by consumer group Choice in December. The decision to abort the launch came last month after a meeting between the Federal Government and major grocery retailers, leaving Choice livid with what they saw as cowering at the might of the leading chains.

Choice expressed “shock” and “disappointment” at the time and sought to discover whether it was possible for them to launch the site without the assistance of further government funding. And now, the consumer group appears prepared to ‘go it alone’, focussing all their attention on the grocery sector.

Choice Chief Executive, Nick Stace, condemned the government for wasting millions of taxpayer dollars after being too eager to produce the site, which led to the initial introduction of a website that was irrelevant. As a result of the decision by Consumer Affairs Minister Craig Emerson, Choice has received a flood of support and a spike in membership, which has galvanised them after receiving “shoddy” treatment.

“They hoped by killing off Grocery Choice they would kill off the issue, but in reality it has galvanised public support,” he told The Australian. “I think the public has seen it as a kick in the teeth.”

Mr Stace and his team will now introduce a grassroots campaign to place pressure on the prices of Coles and Woolworths, with all their campaign teams shifting their current focus to the grocery industry.

“There’s a disease of the centre-left governments, which is that they are too timid in the face of big business,” he suggested. “(The decision) was discourteous to Choice and more so, discourteous to consumers.”

The Federal Government is still hoping to publish a revised version of the price monitoring website with the assistance of retailers.

Update 3:37pm

Choice spokesman Christopher Zinn said, in an interview with the ABC, that the focus of the campaign would be squarely on the two major chains – Coles and Woolworths – after they refused to provide pricing data.

“They’re the hippopotamus in the room because they’re the ones who have the considerable market power because of the market concentration. They’re the ones who really did refuse to share the information,” he told ABC News Online. “It’s a free world and supermarkets can charge what they want – we’re not in Mongolia in the 1960s. But at the same time, we argue that consumers should be completely free to see what the prices are and if the technology allows you to compare prices then so be it.”

Mr Zinn also took a subtle swipe at the Federal Government after they backtracked on their election promise and an agreement with Choice.

“I think that what this has really shown is that we can’t rely on Government to do things for us,” he commented.

Choice indicated the campaign was still very much in the formative stages, with the key goal of the campaign to empower consumers and independent retailers.

“We’re going to be going out into the sticks and talking and listening to people in way we haven’t really done before,” Mr Zinn advised. “We are going to be looking very much at ways to encourage competition. Part of this is encouraging consumers, but it’s also to encourage independent supermarkets and retailers.”

“There are some very good supermarkets, fruit shops, fish mongers, butchers and other people who actually take the competition right to the doors of the supermarkets in terms of service, range and quality and sometimes price.”