The customer's always ripe, for a rip-off

Garry Linnell
December 8 2023 - 12:00pm

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Not wanting to toot my horn too loudly, but fellow grocery shoppers often sneak admiring glances in my direction. Such a dab hand, they gush. You have the patience of a kindergarten teacher and the steady hands of a brain surgeon, they rave. I shrug modestly. But they're right.

Watch: Supermarkets are designed to make shoppers buy more. Here are a few of the sneaky tricks to look out for.

I'm the sage of the supermarket. Unflappable. Serene. I've seen that gut-wrenching fear in the eyes of others; the trembling of their hands as they approach that moment of judgment. Not me. Slow and gentle is the key, you see.

So imagine my shock this week when, out of nowhere, that cold, accusatory voice began chanting "Unexpected item in bagging area". I panicked for the first time. Alarms shrieked. What had I done wrong? Was it that jar of marinated olives? Those devotees who once formed queues to observe my technique looked away in embarrassed sympathy.

Arrogance had gotten the better of me. There was a lesson in this, of course. There is no pleasing self-service checkouts, no matter your expertise or confidence. They're complex and mysterious, as unknowable as Labor's factions. Obeying no known laws of physics, they would have reduced even Oppenheimer to a quivering mess.

Is it any wonder they have come to symbolise not just the avarice and arrogance of Australia's major supermarkets, but their condescending treatment of customers?

Supermarket companies persist with the myth of self-service checkouts - that they are beacons of efficiency, bestowed on us to "enrich the customer experience" because of "changing consumer patterns". Now, belatedly, I know the truth others have whispered for so long. They are not just where your dignity goes to die. They are also the place where zucchinis are publicly exposed and shamed for identifying as cucumbers.

Supermarket companies persist with the myth of self-service checkouts. Picture Shutterstock
Supermarket companies persist with the myth of self-service checkouts. Picture Shutterstock

These infuriating cost-cutting devices are just one reason to welcome a Senate inquiry investigating the market power of our big supermarkets and the mounting allegations they have profiteered in these inflationary times.

"This inquiry is a critical step toward dismantling the market concentration that's led to unfair pricing and stifled competition," said a Greens spokesman after the party secured crossbench support for the Senate probe. "We'll find a way to dismantle their power and bring grocery prices down."

Attempting to break the duopoly of Coles and Woolworths and their control of two-thirds of Australia's grocery market might be a stretch for the Greens. Still, it's about time something was done to prick the smugness of these two grocery giants after they recorded a combined profit of more than $2.7 billion this year, a result well-above pre-pandemic levels.

The looming Senate inquiry is important not just because it threatens to expose the inner workings of two of the most powerful corporations in the country and whether they have been fleecing their customers. It also has the potential to further undermine credibility in that once highly esteemed institution, the Reserve Bank.

Woolworths' profits this year involved record-high operating margins at a time when food bills were soaring and families were, and remain, struggling across the country. And yet we were told these profits were due to some vague "improved business operations" and the canny repair of broken supply chains.

Have we not tired of this corporate doublespeak? Most of us know price gouging when we experience it, the same way we smell hypocrisy when corporate giants pose as family friends. We've endured years of such appalling behaviour from airlines, banks and power and fuel companies.

Yet the Reserve Bank has been adamant that corporate profiteering was not an inflationary trigger. It's a view widely ridiculed by many economists because one of the truths practitioners of the dismal science cling to is that companies with market power always increase their prices more than those facing competition.

If this Senate inquiry finds evidence of price gouging, the RBA's credibility, already teetering after 13 interest rate rises in 15 months, will be shot.

The Coles-Woolworths duopoly, a rarity in the western world, doesn't underline just how small Australia is. It's a towering example of how small our regulators think.

In Britain, where up to eight grocery companies battle for the consumer dollar, ferocious competition has led to record spending on promotions and made it cheaper for consumers approaching the Christmas period.

Other nations, including NZ and Canada, constantly place pressure on grocery prices by threatening supermarket chains with sanctions and forced divestments.

So fingers crossed for this Senate inquiry. May it get to the bottom of this mess and repay our grocery giants with a few unexpected items of their own.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Do you prefer self-service checkouts or do you avoid them? What measures have you taken to combat the rising price of groceries? Are you a loyal Coles or Woolworths customer, or do you seek out the cheapest option? Email us: echidna@theechidna.com.au

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David Pope's view
David Pope's view


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THEY SAID IT: "Our grocery store now has self-checkout, for your convenience. It's like getting punched in the throat, for your comfort." - Dana Gould

YOU SAID IT: Parents face a new screen challenge as authorities warn young kids are potentially being exposed to extremist ideology on a popular computer game platform. Meanwhile, older kids and adults are drooling over a trailer for a game that won't be released until 2025.

Sue writes: "My game playing got off the ground a long time ago. It rarely landed on the log I was aiming for, mostly landing in the water. Truth? I just couldn't raise the interest. I really didn't care where Carmen Miranda was either! There were always so many other things I either had to, or wanted to do, or read, or make. For me, computers and other things electronic, were and still are ways of doing things more quickly, or of accessing people or information as needed. YouTube is one of my favourite learning resources. I am not trying to take any sort of moral high ground here. I have watched and been impressed by students using computers for game playing who in the process learn to evaluate situations to make informed decisions, to work effectively in groups, listen to each other's point of view, consider possible consequences of various possible actions, develop characters in complex ways, and in the process develop some quite complex social skills for themselves. I would, however, recommend the resources of the e-Safety Commission to parents out their concerned about the possible dangers their children could be exposed to."

"Thanks, John," writes Bruce. "Never have and never will play these games; each to their own. All I know about the proliferation of these games is the alarming time kids are spending on them; including Minecraft. And the causative poor sleep patterns, increased levels of anxiety, low interest, attention and focus on tasks that don't have 'bells and whistles', more irritable moods, less physical activity, antisocial school behaviours and finally, deteriorating academic results. Yep, I'm a teacher."

Garry Linnell

Garry Linnell


Garry Linnell is one of Australia’s most experienced journalists. He has won several awards for his writing, including a Walkley for best feature writing. He writes a weekly column for ACM and the Echidna.