It has been absolutely no surprise that the ACCC has given the go-ahead for Coles to buy out five Supabarn stores, with three of them being here in Canberra.
It was also no surprise to read that politicians and others were able to gloss over the effect this is to have on something they most often talk about – ‘choice’.
The competition in the supermarket space in Canberra was supposed to have been opened up to other players. What we are now witnessing is a lessening of players as the two main conglomerates continue their growth and dominance.
The bigger issues here are not just the supermarkets. It is what these two players control across the whole retail sector. Take the time to think for a moment about the huge number of other stores that Westfarmers (Coles) and Woolworths own and which of these outlets people constantly use, including by so many people who try to avoid Coles and Woolworths.
There’s wine, petrol, newspapers, beer, hardware, nursery items, kitchen utensils, office supplies, stationery, bathroom thingies, toys, clothes, TVs, electronic stuff, furniture, and loads of other merchandise. And yes – then there are those hotels and poker machines!
The other cost to society is the lessening of choices in what we buy. These supermarkets have very strict control of their suppliers and what they grow. Over time the range of food items has been shrinking and the supply routes have become more extended as cheaper goods are sourced elsewhere.
The chain of events that follows has happened before in human history and researchers are pointing out that we are heading that way again. (Empire of Foods – book reference below).
Here in Dickson we are witnessing the arrival of Coles. The development is yet to be approved. However given their performance around the country with most other local governments, nothing will stop them now.
Some people still believe that we elect politicians to make important decisions on how our cities will function for the future. The truth is that we should be feeling very sorry for the local politicians and their bureaucracies, as they have so little say over such matters. The best they can do is to watch like the rest of us.
Most local governments in Australia have faced the challenges of these two corporations, now known by their joint name, Colesworth. In most cases, the local government or local groups have failed to hinder the Colesworth expansions into their communities.
The Dickson proposal was put out to tender and was awarded to the only group to submit – being Coles and another developer (who will do the apartments). The general expectation was that Supabarn would have had a go. But we have just learnt that for the last couple of years they have been locked in negotiations with Coles about the buy-out as announced. So that simplified the options – as they were not going to bid against their potential new owners.
I am critical of the LDA/directorate’s on-going role in the rise and rise of the two supermarkets and the demise of our local group centres.
They need to be far more entrepreneurial and creative and work with the local communities to deliver a greater mix of shops. But wait – maybe that is an impossible wish. Enough said.
And chances are that if they had managed to encourage a different supermarket to open in Dickson or elsewhere in Canberra, then going by recent history, that new supermarket would have soon been bought out by either Woolies or Westfarmers (Coles).
Where to from here?
For the short term we have to suffer this very unhealthy situation of having our shopping, particular the supermarkets, dominated by a couple of super huge corporations. They still pretend to be supermarkets – but the reality remains that they are huge finance corporations that would sell anything to keep those profits high. For now that may be food – but if they needed to – they would simply change their focus.
Our politicians should not justify these ever diminishing retail choices. They need to learn how to have empathy for the Canberra electorate who are being forced to have less choice in how they spend their hard earned monies.
The ACT politicians need to do something about Canberra’s other retail mix.
One initiative that our local politicians could assist with is to actively drive some new ideas to see our suburban shopping centres survive alongside the consistent onslaught of these money-making giants. We need to improve the range of large and small shopping alternatives to the big companies. We need this government to stop thinking it is too hard and instead they need to show leadership (optimism again!).
Finally, the ACT Government needs to advocate to the ACCC, or whoever, that the two big corporations need to be broken up. This wonderful country should not have these two giants dominating so much of the commercial sectors and the supply chains required.
These arguments are so much better put in two books I highly recommend:
Supermarket Monsters by Malcolm Knox
Empires of Food – now available online.
Please note that I chose not to mention Aldi on purpose as that would require so much more. The big issues here were around the two big ones and their dominance.
There’s is a heap of evidence and research on the two big ones – I have read quite a bit of it but really only scratched the surface. I do recommend again the book Supermarket Monsters. It is an easy read and astonishing in what it covers. (I have no connection to the book and its publisher).
There are other debates to be had – about Aldi – and Metcash (IGA) – and the role of governments (here and across the country) and the many players involved in Australia’s ( and Canberra’s) supermarket arena. The whole phenomenon of Aldi in Australia – and their arrival in Canberra – deserves so much more discussion.