What has happened to Woolworths? Misleads consumers, no link between TV shows and stores!


Woolworths LogoI have no idea who heads up Woolworths’ Marketing department, but it seems that the retailer has lost the plot!  Once the darling of all, seen to be above reproach in the quality of the products it sells and the lengths that Woolworths will go to find the most organic and animal-friendly produce for its customers, it is being lambasted for copying other brands, for importing tomatoes, peas and more, and for making misleading claims about its products. In addition, it seems to have lost the link between its expensive sponsorship of TV food programmes and its stores!

Let’s start with ‘Hayden Quinn: South Africa’, a programme which has been running on SABC3 for the past 9 weeks, a travelogue of our beautiful country, and documentation of Woolworths’ sourcing of sustainable and ethical produce, or so it is presented.  We have been exposed to Woolworths suppliers of tomatoes in Stellenbosch, organic wines made in Franschhoek, apples and pears grown in Grabouw, SASSI-friendly fish sourcing, and theHayden Quinn SA 8 Sunflowers Nortehrn Cape trestle table Hayden plus 2 pasture-fed lamb from the Karoo.  Criticism has been leveled about the use of an Australian surfer who came third in MasterChef Australia in 2011, as the tour guide to our country and the guide to its sustainable food and wine treasure chest, a self-confessed ‘cooker’ and not a chef!  The dishes in the eight episodes to date have been as basic as salads, pizzas, and sandwiches, with a mussel pot and an Eton Mess too.  In some episodes the Woolworths punt has been so strong (i.e. the tomato growing) that it has become irritating, but of late the strong Woolworths promotion has been toned down. Surprising is the low-key advertising for Woolworths in its half-hour episodes, and is nothing as mouthwatering as the Woolworths’ commercials we have seen on MasterChef SA Seasons 1 and 2.  Nedbank is the other dominant sponsor, but is more visible as it flights advertisements in each show.  We’ll get back to Woolworths’ ethics a little later, given how the retailer is using ‘Hayden Quinn: South Africa‘ to position itself on the highground  of responsible product sourcing, and justifies its use of the Aussie as its recent purchase of department store chain David Jones!

Similarly, Woolworths’ sponsorship of MasterChef SA, now in its third Season, is intended to position the retailer as the source for all brands and not just its own label brands, the ethical sourcing of its products being far less pronounced to date, although using SASSI-listed Green and preferably no Orange, and definitely no Red-listed fish was the focus of episode 1 of Season 3.   Woolworths is overshadowed by Robertsons as sponsor in MasterChef SA Season 3, which causes a further irony in that the retailer does not stock this common-or-garden spice and dried herb range.

One would expect of a savvy marketer like Woolworths to be cleverer in its spending of the many millions of Rands on ‘Hayden Quinn : South Africa’, and on ‘MasterChef SA‘.  Why would Woolworths support the duplication of two TV programmes it sponsors to run simultaneously in the same week, as has been the case since three weeks ago.  Not only is staying home two nights a week to watch the programmes on Mondays and Thursdays (in addition to Chopped South Africa on Wednesdays, and the third season of The Ultimate BraaiMaster starting soon) overkill, but it means that the one programme may lose out on viewership, with Thursdays being the more likely one, being a busier night for events than are Mondays.  What interests me in particular, after a shopping visit Woolworths Sea Point Tills Whale Cottageto Woolworths in St John’s Piazza in Sea Point,  is that there is no marketing collateral inside the Food department of the store for both ‘Hayden Quinn: South Africa‘ and ‘MasterChef SA‘, as there was in Season 1 of MasterChef SA.  Some stores even set up themed tables of produce to link to MasterChef SA in Season 1, while the marketing link to Woolworths stores was weaker in Season 2 already.  Now it is non-existent!

But it is not just the marketing aspect of Woolworths that is questionable.  Last week I noticed a pack of six guavas in the Sea Point branch, with a sell-by date of the same date, of which five were severely off, placed right in front of the shelf.  I could only Tweet about this when I had left the store, as Woolworths has suppressed all cellphone coverage in this store.  About an hour later I received a reply from Woolworths, asking me to notify a manager Woolworths Guavas Whale Cottageabout the guavas!  Now surely that is not my job as customer?  I had tried to find a manager in the clothes department to complain about two of their staff in the Customer Service department chewing chewing gum, and was told that all the managers were out of the store to attend a meeting!   If Woolworths is so proud of its Sustainable sourcing of products, and is spending millions on ‘Hayden Quinn: South Africa‘, and has a department of Sustainability run by Justin Smith, how is it possible that it sells ‘vrot’ guavas that are still on the shelf, and have a sell-by date which had not yet expired?!

Another storm has burst about the Ayrshire milk which Woolworths sells under its own brand.  Grass is a Consumer Food Action group asking retailers and producers of foods some tough questions, and Woolworths seems to be receiving more than any other retailer!  Grass discovered, via a consumer, that half of Woolworths’ Ayrshire cows are not free-range, contrary to its TV commercial, as well as articles in Taste magazine (the Woolworths mouthpiece, of which the Food Editor is Eat Out editor Abigail Donnelly!).  Half of the cows are kept in a barn, in most unhygienic conditions, their Scottish origin make them sensitive to our country’s heat.  After pressure by the action group, Woolworths changed its claims of free-range and organic on its milk labels, to ‘produced from cows that are fed organic feed’!  There are other cases on the Grass website about Woolworths misleading consumers, including 85% of the soy content of its white bread, representing 1% of the bread, is Genetically Modified; oatmeal digestive biscuits were found to only contain 3% oatmeal; general misleading or non-declaration of GMO content, dubious pork sourcing, and more. Whenever Grass challenges Woolworths, the retailer amends its labeling.  Grass has asked Woolworths some more challenging questions, after its response to the Ayrshire milk criticism.

Last, but not least, is Woolworths importing tomatoes from Israel and peas from Kenya.  Surely Woolworths’ Sustainability department would not be spending millions on ‘Hayden Quinn: South Africa‘, attempting to convince consumers that it is ethical in its sourcing of products, when its carbon-footprint in flying these products in from other countries is negatively affected.  Is there really a consumer demand for tomatoes from Israel or peas from Kenya? Surely consumers would be happy with good quality peas and tomatoes, full stop!  Given the sensitivity around the war in Gaza, the tomatoes from Israel have become a political issue too, an action group calling for the retailer to not stock them, and its refusal to heed the request has led to a boycott of Woolworths stores, appearing to be having an effect on food and clothing sales, and its share price, it has been reported.

So, the bottom-line is that Woolworths is trying to soft-soak us via their sponsorship of the ‘Hayden Quinn: South Africa‘ (estimated at a cost of R 50 million for the 13 half-hour slots alone, and that excludes the cost to the production company and Hayden Quinn) and ‘MasterChef SA‘ TV shows, but behind the scenes it is not worthy of any consumer praise, as the retailer is continuously misleading its customers.  Woolworths once was the highpoint of top quality products, but many customers no longer shop there due to the products identified above, its high prices, and increasingly rude and incompetent staff.  They question how it is that Woolworths products can last so long, completely unnatural, and therefore welcome markets with fresh produce, of which an increasing number are springing up around the country.  Woolworths needs to pull up its socks, and go back to where it once was in terms of ethics, positive carbon footprint, and true sustainability!

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  Tel (021) 433-2100  Twitter:@WhaleCottage   Facebook:  click here

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39 replies on “What has happened to Woolworths? Misleads consumers, no link between TV shows and stores!”

  1. A friend of mine owns a home industry and woolworths send top staff in there once a week. .. tasting her produce and asking about her suppliers and ingredients. … It is at the point of harassment now. .pick n pay already sole some of her suppliers resulting in cheaper prizes because of bulk buying. So unfair. They all start to copy her best sellers.

  2. i used to tweet woolies almost very week about something in their store and they used to reply “thanks very much for your feedback we will inform the store manager”, they are probably the most incompetent retailer around, we have a new PP store opening in Hout Bay early next year and i cannot wait….. lack of customer service, no managers ever on the floor, long queues, and the biggest retail sin of them all empty shelves, no stock of certain items for weeks and weeks and the managers excuse ” Hout Bay is at the end of the supply run so by the time it gets to us there isnt much left” they have never heard of epos then

    • Good feedback Darren, and something I am experiencing too.

      I did find a fabulous lady Anita Scott, who is involved with Customer Service at Woolworths – try to get hold of her directly: Tel 021 407-6533.

  3. Dear, Israeli refers to the tomato type, not the country of origin. Shouldn’t an experienced foodie like you know that ?

  4. You must be crazy if you think any company spends R50m on a tv sponsorship. Do some fact checking please

    • My husband is an attorney in the media industry and companies easily spend between R15 mill and R20 mill sponsoring prime-time comedy shows such as Modern Family which are only on for a few weeks at a time with limited time on the TV so I’m not sure that the R50 mill price tag quoted above is accurate. BUT, needless to say, its still a ton of money being spent which could be better spent in perhaps providing their suppliers with the infrastructure to produce true free-range and organic produce. Just a thought.

  5. I am not completely shocked to read this report on Woolworths unethical business dealings. Yes it is a shame that the consumer is being misled, but big companies in the USA for example has done the same for many years. The problem is with the consumers gullibility and like everyone else in the world we all just bleep over this issue and continue eating up the deception. The only solution is an alternative provided of a superior product to rival Woolworths.

    • Consumer complacency does not work, and we should all take our Rands elsewhere. Woolworth no longer seems to care – maybe the Aussie customers are more important to them now!

      • Hope you “WE” is your family and friends. We shop at Woolworths or wherever we like with our money.

  6. I am amused by the ‘soft-soak’ instead of ‘soft-soap’. Was this intentional?
    However, I cut up my Woolies card in-store in 2006, due to an sms promotion that had not filtered down to the store employees.
    Before that, when invited to tea at my local store as one of their five top local customers, expressly to ask for food product feedback, I had explained that I couldn’t eat or drink anything on offer that day because I am diabetic. Had someone listened, Woolies could have been the first to cater to SA’s needs in that respect…they still have not got there!

    • Well said, Mo. Time to support the little retailers and producers that actually DO care about the health of humanity in general and their customers in particular. I’d like to put together a list of accommodation venues that adhere to ethical humane principles … so far my list is short but pse get in touch if you have any places to recommend …

  7. Strange. I have been a Woolworths shopper for more than 20 years, and in that time have seldom had reason to complain. I find that their prices are not significantly higher than other food retailers, and they are actually less expensive for some products. I have never experienced rudeness from any Woolworths staffmember, and some of the till staff at the branches where I shop greet me by name and exchange pleasantries. I think that the response we get is often due to the way we approach people.

    And no, I do not work for Woolworths and nor do I own any shares in the company.

    Ps. The Israeli tomatoes are NOT imported.

    • You must be a lucky Woolworths customer.

      We can see your dedication and loyalty to the store, with two comments written in support of the retailer!

        • Caroline did I insult you? I posted the same comment regarding the Reputation Institute Survey, and said in my other comment that I hoped that all the people concerned about the well-being of cows are also vegans or vegetarians, don’t wear fur, angora or leather. I made no mention at all about my personal experience or opinion of Woolworths.

          If you see that as “sycophantic drivel” because you cannot accept that others have a different opinion to yours, then so be it.

          Chris von Ulmenstein obviously disagrees with my views but at least she had the decency to engage without blatant rudeness.

          • I prefer not to spend too much time chewing the fat with corporate trolls. Vodacom (!!) also won the award you refer to and comparing one corporate entity with another is hardly considering the wishes of CONSUMERS.

          • I believe you have a reputation in the industry for being rude and dismissive, as per feedback from BA, and a number of other people, so we shouldn’t expect you to respect anyone’s opinion but your own… Pity, it really diffuses the impact of your points.

        • I’m no ww fan, but insulting someone for holding a view different to your own doesn’t up weight your arguments either..

      • Most of your article is about the Hayden Quinn programme which I have never watched so I’m not in a position to give an opinion on that.

        Please respect that many people have had a different experience to yours and have a different perception of Woolworths because of that. I have not said that Woolworths is perfect (there is no retailer who gets it right all the time), but I feel that some of the criticism directed at Woolworths is unnecessarily harsh and at times bordering on vindictive (not yours specifically).

        Perhaps I have just been lucky, but then so apparently have most of my friends and acquaintances who also regularly shop at Woolworths.

        • Only one paragraph of my blogpost related to Hayden Quinn Romilia.

          I do respect a diversity of opinions about Woolworths. I used my own experience plus what I read on the Grass website for this blogpost.

  8. ‘Woolworths wins the Reputation Institute Survey’
    www biznews com
    May 14, 2014

    “Woolworths led the field on all reputation dimensions: leadership, citizenship, governance, workplace, innovation, products/services and performance.

    The survey is conducted annually by the globally respected
    Reputation Institute. The National RepTrack@Pulse Survey is now in its ninth year in South Africa, and measures the reputation of the largest listed South African companies based on revenue and who are engaged in commercial activities, have a reasonable amount of familiarity with the general public and are not wholly owned subsidiaries of other companies.

    Woolworths was the only company to score above 70 points, giving it a strong and robust reputation.

    The survey is conducted annually in January / February among 1452 unique respondents. Respondents distribution was balanced to the country population on age and gender.”

    • Dear Romilia

      It’s unfortunate that you didn’t copy and paste the rest of the News24 article, which clearly reflects that this survey is conducted for listed companies, and cannot therefore have been evaluated by consumers!

      The following paragraph refers: ‘It measures the reputation of the largest listed South African companies based on revenue and commercial activities’.

      • I did not quote the entire article only for the sake of brevity, no other reason.

        I mentioned the source so that anyone who is interested can google the article and read it in its entirety. (The article I quoted was on Biznews not News24).

        According to The Reputation Institute website, consumers who are economically active (namely LSM6+) were interviewed in South Africa. More than 3000 respondents were interviewed for the 2014 survey.

  9. How did you find out about these vrot guavas? Lucky you saw that because some of us no longer shop at Woollies, so we would’t have known.

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