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Woolies declines apology over price surges

Written by on May 13, 2024

One of Woolworths’ top executives says he believes the supermarket giant is not at fault when it comes to Australian families being priced out of purchasing fresh produce due to rising costs.

Woolworths chief commercial officer Paul Harker made the comments during a Queensland parliamentary probe into supermarket prices, responding to a question asked by the state’s premier Steven Miles.

Making a surprise appearance at Monday’s session, Mr Miles asked the Woolworths executive: “Would you apologise to the Queensland families who have reduced their fresh food consumption because of those price increases?”

His claim was based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) which reported consumption of fruits and vegetables was down by 6.8 per cent, with dairy consumption dropping by 5.13 per cent.

Mr Harker said while he empathised with customers struggling with the rising cost-of-living, he didn’t believe Woolworths was to blame.

“Well we acknowledge that a number of customers in the community are doing it tough trying to balance a budget,” said Mr Harker.

“We try to do our best to provide great value items to the customers in our stores and we empathise with people who are trying.”

He later added: “I’m trying to understand what I’m actually apologising for. I certainly have empathy for and we seek to do more for consumers … but I don’t believe we’ve done anything wrong.”

During the grilling of Coles, Mr Miles vented his frustrations over the lack of accountability and transparency from supermarket giants.

“I think this goes to what is most frustrating for policymakers and for consumers, (that) every time we hear from spokespeople from … Coles or Woolworths, they insist that they’ve done nothing wrong,” said Mr Miles, amid a grilling of Coles public affairs head Adam Fitzgibbons.

“I think what Queenslanders would like to hear is a supermarket boss say we could have done better and we will do better, and these are things we will do differently. And I think certainly my frustration is we don’t get to hear that.”

Mr Fitzgibbons countered Mr Miles and maintained Coles has “listened to customers”.

“One of the messages that I’ve been saying here today is that we’re very much committed to being part of the solution,” he said.

“I think there is a high degree of confusion within the sector, which I think all of us can do a better job of explaining how the sector operates.”

Mr Miles also directly asked Coles chief operating officer Matt Swindel for a public commitment to get “more fresh fruits and vegies into schools,” to which Mr Swindel agreed.

MP’s spray at Coles over ‘retribution’ tactics

Earlier, committee chair and Bundaberg MP Tom Smith accused supermarkets of creating a “culture of retribution” on farmers and growers that forced producers to sell their products at the “lowest price”.

“We are seeing farmers have the price of their product being reduced time and time and time again by a manipulated market from the duopoly and they are losing out,” he said, speaking to Mr Fitzgibbons.

Mr Smith also asked Coles to consider an “independent review” of how it determined contracts with suppliers, which Mr Fitzgibbons said the company would “consider”.

The Coles executive said the grocer would “encourage the committee to participate with us in those discussions … and see first hand how it is we do that”.

Mr Smith said the government was already doing that, with farmers reporting to the inquiry that they felt “cheated” and “threatened”.

“Farmers in Queensland are terrified by Coles and Woolworths, and Coles and Woolworths are at the end of the day, their lifeblood, and there needs to be a greater commitment,” he said.

The inquiry was convened by the Premier, who has vocally accused supermarket giants of price gouging and shrinkflation (when grocery products get smaller while their prices remain the same or increase) and their effect on farmers and primary producers.