Fuck Coles and Woolworths

Supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths post consistent annual profits of more than a billion dollars, hold 60 percent of the market, and enjoy a stranglehold over a vital supply chain of essential items. And with this power they squeeze ordinary Australians dry, from farmers to latte-sippers to marginal families. The supermarkets, under the cover of inflation, pandemic, war, and generally deteriorating societal conditions, have developed the price-gouging practices we see (and pay for) today – protected, every step of the way, by corporate-facing bipartisanship in Parliament House. 

The federal government and opposition have chimed in with lipservice about the obese profiteering of the major food providers, all of it of little worth to millions of Australians developing various forms of depression standing in a bottleneck of automatic checkouts, staggered day in day out by how much cheese fucking costs nowadays. There but for the grace of Coles (and Woolworths), go I.

In the midst of the pandemic, somewhere around the time Solomon Lew was threatening Frank Lowy that he wasn’t going to pay rent at Westfield during lockdown, and Gerry Harvey was thumbing his nose at us after being caught with too much Jobkeeper, the supermarkets were deemed essential by state and federal governments. While the other duopolies closed stores, and Bunnings and Kmart built the capacity for mass scale click and collect – the titanic supermarkets carried on unimpeded, open, and essential.

Young adults moved back with their parents, family members checked in with each other, singles looked to the uncertain future with existential dread, and the major supermarkets opened their doors like never before. In this period of society-wide panic, they perfected the modern iteration of price gouging we see today and set the standard for establishing year on year profits by selling overpriced essential items that millions of Australians depend on to survive.

When prices stayed up after the pandemic, and rose steadily along with duopoly profits, Australians looked to a new Labor government to rein it the fuck in. But it soon became apparent that the new government was much like the old regarding preservation of the status quo. And as Anthony Albanese spruiked the vital importance of the large supermarket employers at Jobs and Skills Summits by day, and dined with the business elite at night, as Labor budget offerings had the same light handedness towards corporate profits as their predecessors, it became clear to struggling consumers that the political duopoly was not going to do much to rein in the supermarket duopoly.

As the profit driven molehill, that was really a mountain, turned into a mega mountain, the RBA was accused of dereliction of duty’ in a report issued by the Australia Institute in April 2023 for dismissing corporate profiteering as a cause of inflation. A month later the RBA demanded the retraction of the ‘flawed’ report, only to have it flip completely in June when it finally admitted corporate price gouging was a key driver of the inflation walloping us all about the craniums..

As the unpopular Philip Lowe era turned into his (slightly less unpopular) successor Michelle Bullock’s reign, less and less did the dishonest talk about ‘Wage-Price Spirals’ fill the excuses of the RBA. More and more it became clear the ‘Greed-Price Spiral’, wherein greedy multinational giants drive inflation with brutally high prices and massive profits, while simultaneously squeezing the farmers who make their business model viable, was a key culprit. 

One in six children live in poverty, and nutrition and access to affordable food is a major issue in a country that produces orders of magnitude more than it can consume. The price of cheap imported consumer items (that many of us don’t need) has stayed relatively low, while the cost of essential groceries (that everyone needs) has skyrocketed, pushing many Australians to the brink.

After the PR disaster on Four Corners, which demonstrated the Pharaoh-like belligerence of the Australian corporate CEO class – acted out in true fashion by Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci, who stepped down in the aftermath – the duopoly supermarkets hit up the duopoly press outlets, and they all fumbled around with their songsheets trying to hit the notes they have sung since the pandemic. While the Prime Minister demonstrated a reluctance to make a significant move against the unviable situation – like breaking up the big supermarkets – the other CEO who didn’t retire, Coles CEO Leah Weckert, got on the front foot and slammed the identification of price gouging as nonsense, bleating that “Profits are an essential thing for any business”, and called on us all to consider the “thousands of mums and dads” that “need” to reap share dividends.

American tech writer Cory Doctorow coined the term ‘enshittification’ to describe the slow and deliberate decay of tech platforms such as Facebook, but it may apply even more so in the case of Australian supermarkets. ‘Enshittification’ is a three-stage process: first the company is nice to their customers, then they abuse the customer group to make things better for business customers, then they abuse everyone to reap the benefits for themselves. With Coles and Woolworths, and many duopoly companies across the shallow competition in this country, it is clear that we are in the third and final stage of enshittification.

We are a nation of duopolies. While the foreign owned mining companies harvest our national resources paying close to no tax, the NewsCorp and Nine papers serve up the same old crap, and the Kmarts and Big Ws, Just Jeans and Jay Jays, Bunnings and BHPs, BPs, Shells, MacDonald’s and Hungry Jacks corner us with market dominance and overexposure. 

Up until now, the supermarkets have enjoyed a more intimate relationship with Aussies, avoiding criticism by getting to our hearts through our stomachs. From incessant ads with oversized downward pointing gloves, and major-key psychologically-vetted theme music whistled to our unwitting minds in every prime time slot, along with the indelible smile of Curtis Stone chargrilled into the back of our retinas, rose tinted glasses have been applied to the supermarkets from a population that equates them with the place that helps them feed their children. But a decade of shoehorning celebrity chefs into reality cooking shows fully sponsored by the supermarkets is no longer working, nor the whistling theme songs in major keys, or the generic songsheet responses from the pharaonic CEOs, as the reality sets in that supermarket price gouging and obscene profiteering in a broken market are making children hungry.

Anthony Albanese has warned the supermarkets to cut prices. Public outrage towards the supermarkets forced this verbal change of tune. Up until this point, Albo was clearly happy spending most of his first term letting things go on as before. His government has thus far signalled it will do little when it comes to curtailing the big player duopolies that dominate Australian markets.

The bigger the political and corporate duopoly becomes, the more they seem to have in common, and the more we feel it towering over us. A shadow has been cast for some time now, and we have felt its cold shade since the pandemic. With no will to change this from a Labor government, a hopelessness has grown, and a trend in anger towards the supermarket giants has spiked, rivalling their profit forecasts. The longer duopolies are protected by our major parties, the longer the shadow they both will cast over us. And if the population doesn’t choose an alternative to the major party status quo that protects the corporate profit status quo, unmitigated end stage enshittification from industry and government duopolies will be all that remains.

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