Something rotten in our supermarkets


supermarket monstersBook | Supermarket Monsters: The Price of Coles and Woolworths’ Dominance | Malcolm Knox

Review by Garth Jones

“We are an oligopoly community. We shouldn’t fight it.” Andrew Robb, Federal Minister for Trade, August 2013

The ethics and morality of food production, distribution and consumption are prominent topics in the news of late.

From the ACCC’s ‘unconscionable conduct’ case against Coles’ treatment of its suppliers, to Council of Small Business Australia chief executive Peter Strong’s allegations of collusion with the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, our two major supermarket chains are under heavy media scrutiny.

In Supermarket Monsters: The Price of Coles and Woolworths’ Dominance, former Fairfax journalist Malcolm Knox expands upon his August 2014 investigation of the same name, published in The Monthly.

Using clear, dispassionate language, Knox cites statistic after sobering statistic, forensically highlighting the anti-competitive practices at work behind the scenes of the weekly shop.

Many of us would be surprised to discover, for example, that the retail duopoly also compete for our consumer dollar in the supply of petrol, liquor, hardware and even poker machine facilities, with plans to move aggressively into gymnasiums and even hair salons mooted.

In fact, it is highly likely that a good proportion of your dollar goes directly into the pockets of either Coles or Woolworths on a daily basis, owing to their market dominance and ability to put pressure on smaller retailers across the country.

Knox refers to this two-headed beast as ‘Colesworth’, illustrating that the two brands (the 19th and 25th biggest retailers globally) are an interchangeable entity in consumers’ minds.

Detailing a century of parallel competition, from general stores to franchises to all consuming corporations, Supermarket Monsters deftly illustrates the two brands’ domination, accelerating their parallel expansion strategies.

Complicit in this, of course, are we, the consumer. Ever-more convenience-obsessed and time- poor, we secure our food and alcohol ‘solutions’ (vast swathes of profit come from the sale of  ‘stimulants, nicotine, caffeine’) from these one-stop shops which now even boast cafes and sushi bars, voraciously targeting niche small businesses.

Employing a combined 400,000 workers (only our state governments employ more), Knox highlights the murky web of suspect hiring practices, low pay, unfair dismissals and ‘restructures’ at the heart of the two chains’ business strategy.

Drawing attention to the downwards pressure exerted on primary and secondary producers, Supermarket Monsters questions just where the inexorable drive to expand and dominate markets will lead us. Quoting Milton Friedman’s well known dictum, “a corporation’s only responsibility is to shareholders”, Knox wonders, conversely “just how expensive is that cheap product?”. What are the ultimate knock-on effects of the duopoly’s practices in terms of the ecosystem of trade, production and community? And what of the effects of cheap processed food and beverages on the nation’s health and wellbeing?

Supermarket Monsters lays bare the cut-throat business of bringing you your weekly shop, teasing out the meaning of the corporations’ success and subsequent impact on everyday Australians fact by frightening fact.

Knox’s carefully researched book offers us a timely opportunity to reflect on the ethics and morality of corporations, and also challenges us to assess our own buying habits. What cost does our craving for convenience and loyalty to brands have on our sense of community and consumer rights?

Most pertinently, Supermarket Monsters asks us to reconsider Andrew Robb’s call to acquiesce to the might of oligopolies, making an arresting case for fighting for our right to choice and ethical consumption.

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