Woolworths has found itself in the crosshairs of a heated cultural debate across the shores.
Woolworths clears the air on why it deshelved ‘Australia Day’ merch
According to reports, Australian opposition leader Peter Dutton has called for a boycott of the retail giant over its decision to cease selling Australia Day-themed merchandise.
Australia Day, celebrated on 26 January, marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British ships at Port Jackson, New South Wales.
It is a national holiday in Australia, observed to celebrate Australian history and culture and to recognise the achievements of Australians, albeit for many indigenous people of the country, the day is not a celebration but a time of mourning and protest, as it marks the beginning of British colonisation and the associated injustices and traumas experienced by Indigenous communities.
Alas, Dutton, speaking on 2GB radio, labelled the decision as an “outrage” and contrary to the “national spirit,” urging Australians to shop elsewhere.
Dutton’s stance has sparked a wave of reactions, with some backing his call for a boycott and others criticising it as a needless inflaming of “culture wars.”
Agriculture Minister Murray Watt countered Dutton’s statements, arguing that the government’s focus is on reducing grocery prices, not on what type of merchandise supermarkets choose to sell.
“Peter Dutton is always focused on a culture war. Our government is focused on the prices that supermarkets charge; Peter Dutton is focused on the kind of thongs that supermarkets sell”, Watt said.
Woolworths Group, which includes Big W, stated that their decision was influenced by a gradual decline in demand for Australia Day merchandise, alongside a broader discussion about the significance of 26 January to different community segments.
“There has been a gradual decline in demand for Australia Day merchandise from our stores over recent years. At the same time there’s been broader discussion about 26 January and what it means to different parts of the community,” the retailer reiterated.
The company continues to sell Australian flags year-round but will not stock additional themed merchandise like thongs emblazoned with the Australian flag.
The decision has been met with mixed reactions from the public and political figures.
Opposition Indigenous Affairs spokeswoman Jacinta Nampijinpa Price echoed Dutton’s sentiments, questioning Woolworths’ claim of reduced customer demand and suggesting the decision was politically motivated.
In contrast, former Sydney lord mayor Lucy Turnbull criticized the call for a boycott, urging an end to “culture wars” and “cancel culture.”
Woolies Australia is no stranger to controversies
Woolworths Australia has been involved in several controversies over the years. Two notable instances include its marketing strategy missteps and a controversial trial of cashless stores.
Woolworths Australia faced a crisis of confidence due to its response to competitive strategies by other retailers like Coles and ALDI.
According to Mumbrella, Woolworths attempted to counter the “Down Down” campaign of Coles with its “Cheap Cheap” campaign, which was criticised as being reactive rather than proactive.
This shift in strategy was seen as a deviation from Woolworths’ brand identity as a quality retailer, leading to customer confusion and a decline in sales.
The campaign’s failure to resonate with consumers led to a challenging period for the supermarket, as it struggled to compete with ALDI’s rapid growth and Coles’ successful marketing initiatives.
In 2021, Woolworths launched a trial of cashless stores in select metro locations. This move was met with significant backlash from customers who preferred or relied on cash transactions.
The trial, aimed at making shopping more seamless for inner-city customers, was criticised for excluding certain groups, including older people and the homeless.
The decision to go cashless was seen as Woolworths prioritising profits over customer needs.