Georgina Guedes

Woolies versus the underdog

2013-10-21 10:16

Georgina Guedes

South Africa loves Woolies. We do. It's worth paying a slight premium for better quality food, nicely packaged and sold by well-trained staff. It's also good, in an increasingly socially conscious world, to be able to make decisions about products that are organic, or locally sourced, or that empower local farmers, or that are part of an attempt to reduce packaging.

But South Africa, it seems, loves the underdog more. So when Euodia Roets, a young designer, took to her blog to post a complaint about how Woolworths had treated her, South Africans leapt to her cause, calling for boycotts of the retailer and sharing her blog post faster than you can say "PR disaster".

She said that she had entered into a long series of negotiations with Woolworths, who were interested in including her designs in one of their linen ranges. One of those designs was a hummingbird. After a drawn-out and apparently unpleasant process, Roets received a message that they had decided not to go ahead with her range. Two weeks later, she found a similarly designed hummingbird on a cushion in her local Woolies store.

Frankie's long shadow

Now, Woolworths does have an unfortunate history of a similar drama with Frankie's, a manufacturer of retro fizzy drinks, whose line they tried to replicate - actions for which they received a sharp and very public rap over the knuckles.

In that particular case, the evidence indicated that the fault lay with Woolworths. They had negotiated with Frankie's over that very particular product line, and then opted to make their own, almost identically packaged and flavoured beverages. Frankie's won the battle at the ASA, and, mostly in response to the massive outcry on social media, Woolworths withdrew their line.

All media to the rescue

And so, when Roets's blog started to circulate, South Africa's social and traditional media community got their "share" fingers ready and went to battle again.

But then, a Woolies response was circulated, stating that the cushion she identified was commissioned long before they even entered into negotiations with her, and stating that they found the turn of events unfortunate and would like to discuss them further with Roets, who has gone quiet since the original blog posting.

South Africans are not convinced. But I am quite happy to go with Woolworths' version. Here are some of the complaints that people are still making:

"Woolies is just blame shifting."
Well, yes, they would have to, wouldn't they? If it's not their fault, then it's her misunderstanding. I felt that they presented the facts - the earlier commissioning of the cushion cover - in a fairly straightforward and quite sympathetic way.

"Woolies took too long to respond."
Woolies is an enormous operation, and they have been in trouble like this before. I imagine they had a massive team of PR people, legal experts, brand managers and the specific individuals involved all working on developing their response, based on facts.

They would have had to wade through e-mails and commission forms to piece their response together. Roets posted her blog on 18 October. Woolies had a response by the 19th - which was also a Saturday. I don't think that's too long.

"Woolies still treated her badly."
It does sound like Woolies gave Roets a bit of a rough ride. They asked for lots of samples, played hardball on costs, left her hanging for ages, and then, ultimately declined. It's not lovely behaviour. But you know what… it sounds awfully familiar to me. Know why? Because that's how big corporations treat independent suppliers, so, as a freelancer, I've dealt with this kind of behaviour a lot.

We are not their priority. They are chasing margins. The internal wheels have to turn. If we don't want their work, someone else will get it, so we can either fit into their practices, or we can move along for the next guy. It's not lekker, but it's hardly unusual. And without the claims of copyright infringement, this part of the process would really only be regarded as a small player's unsuccessful negotiation with a retail giant.

Or we kick the underdog

On the other hand, there are those who, once robbed of a corporate giant to rail against, find ways to kick the underdog. Roets is now being called a hypocrite for her use of someone else's work in her hummingbird design in the first place.

Whether or not this is true, it's too early for us to start bashing her (and will it ever really be necessary?) for what seems to have been an unfortunate series of events, culminating in a misunderstanding. I'm sure we're going to hear more of this in the coming days, but it would be better if we could simply take a quiet interest, rather than raging against one side or another, until the final outcome is reached.

Woolies would do well to revise (or at least say they are revising) their small supplier engagement policies, augmenting them with better communication upfront and throughout the process, so that misunderstandings are more hard to come by.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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