BILL SHORTEN: Greed has sucked the joy out of grocery shopping

Bill Shorten
The Nightly
5 Min Read
BILL SHORTEN: Supermarkets are more than just places to buy stuff. We’re often loyal to them, and it’s long past time they showed their customers some loyalty in return.
BILL SHORTEN: Supermarkets are more than just places to buy stuff. We’re often loyal to them, and it’s long past time they showed their customers some loyalty in return. Credit: The Nightly

Believe it or not, one of my favourite things to do is family grocery shopping.

Every Saturday or Sunday I can be found pounding the pavement of Moonee Ponds, Ascot Vale, Flemington or Highpoint and Essendon, getting the groceries.

Given I am on the road around Australia so much during the week, it is the very least I can do for my family.

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It is also an excellent chance to talk to people living and working in my electorate, Maribyrnong, whether it’s in the local supermarket, the fruit and veg or chicken shop, the farmers market or the bakery.

Markets, and then supermarkets, have been at the centre of communities since they began.

The weekly food shop, the place to get your movie night snacks, the aisle that is raided for party supplies, and the freezer section where we go for that last-minute dinner. All an unconscious part of our lives.

Supermarkets were a beacon of light when we were locked down in COVID, a comforting sign of some semblance of normality. However, there was nothing normal about their workers. They became national heroes. Working around the clock to get precious stock onto shelves — and breaking up a few barneys over a six-pack of Sorbent.

But somewhere in that strange and unsettling period of suspended animation, greed reared its ugly head.

Grocery shopping as part of the weekly ritual was sometimes fun and sometimes a chore but it was never quite as uncomfortable as it is now.

None of my criticism is about the workers, to be clear. They’re legends.

But last year I said I had a nagging concern that the big supermarkets were using the smokescreen of inflation in the wake of COVID and the Russian invasion of Ukraine to increase their prices beyond what was reasonable.

Consumer advocate magazine Choice even awarded Coles and Woolworths the top Shonky Award for 2023.

The Albanese Government recognised the problem for what it was and announced an independent review into the Food and Grocery Code, overseen by Treasurer Jim Chalmers and the Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, Andrew Leigh.

That review was handed down this week and it sets out how families and farmers are going to have a voice in making supermarkets more competitive.

After extensive consultation it appears a major flaw in the system is that the voluntary Food and Grocery Code of Conduct is something supermarkets can — and do — walk away from.

The main recommendation of the review is to make the code mandatory with heavy penalties for major breaches.

This will go some way to addressing the market power imbalance between the big supermarkets with annual revenue of $5 billion or more — Woolies, Coles, Aldi and Metcash — and smaller suppliers and stores.

But it’s been more than just skyrocketing prices that have seen a divide between the supermarket business and its customers. The signs have been there for a while.

BILL SHORTEN: Supermarkets are more than just places to buy stuff. We’re often loyal to them, and it’s long past time they showed their customers some loyalty in return.
BILL SHORTEN: Supermarkets are more than just places to buy stuff. We’re often loyal to them, and it’s long past time they showed their customers some loyalty in return. Credit: Maksym Yemelyanov - stock.adobe.

Slowly, supermarkets eroded public trust.

Subtle changes can have a big impact.

Some Coles supermarkets are closing down their delis, for example, limiting the customer’s choice and presenting them with only packaged goods. Get rid of delis, you no longer need to pay deli workers.

And try to find a butcher on a supermarket premises these days. Almost non-existent.

No more asking for a recommendation on the right cut of beef for a new recipe, or having your ham sliced to the thickness you like, or getting just one scoop of Kalamata olives all in the same location you pick up all your other groceries. (Though there may be an upside for smaller, independent delis which can cash in on our current liking for exotic meats and cheeses on a piece of wood.)

Overall, the shopping experience has gone from one that was almost communal to one that is cold and clinical.

Gone are the days of having a natter as the checkout assistant put through your Omo, Monte Carlos and a loaf of bread.

Now you navigate the sheep and run into the self-serve pen only to look up to see an unflattering image of your face as you are filmed while scanning your shopping. I don’t recall ever consenting to being filmed and certainly not from that angle!

The new way of ringing up your purchases can be impersonal and unpleasant and deprive some Australians of a job and some shoppers of human contact.

In the Netherlands, the Bureau of Statistics found 33 per cent of adults over 75 felt at least moderately lonely. So Dutch grocery chain Jumbo responded by implementing a unique solution: the kletskassa, a slower “chatter checkout”.

The kletskassa was created for anyone whose day could be improved by a little chit-chat.

The cashiers at these slow lanes take time to have a conversation with customers choosing their line. The process may take a little longer than at regular lanes, but the value to those experiencing loneliness is immeasurable.

Colette Cloosterman-van Eerd, chief commercial officer of Jumbo, who is also a member of the National Coalition Against Loneliness, feels it is right that the business plays this role — one not often associated with your local store.

Ms Cloosterman-van Eerd explained that as a supermarket chain, they are “in the middle of society”.

And that is what it all comes back to.

Grocery stores are important in our society and are more than just aisle upon aisle of shiny products.

We are loyal to them and expect loyalty in return.

But they have not been holding up their end of the bargain.

The Albanese Government has said enough and will bring about changes necessary to make sure our supermarkets work for us.

Submissions to the Food and Grocery Conduct review can be made online and close on April 30.

Bill Shorten is the Minister for the NDIS, Minister for Government Services and Federal Member for Maribyrnong.

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