Shonkys 2023 Winners Announced

The 2023 Shonkys are

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From the Choice article.

Woolworths and Coles – for cashing in during a cost-of-living crisis
RentTech – for ‘data gouging’ people desperate to find a home
Personal alarms – for being unreliable and hard to use
Kogan First – for tricking customers into a $99 sign-up
Xbox Mini Fridge – for being a ‘fridge’ that doesn’t make things cold

For the second to fifth awards I have no problem, the summary is pretty well supported by evidence. For the first I have doubts.

Let me begin with a hypothetical about the fifth item. If Choice had shown that many customers had complained about the cooling ability and the inefficiency of the Mini Fridge, but Choice had not done any measurements of either, would that mean the fridge deserved a Shonky or not?

The topic of the profit margins of Coles and Woolworths has come up several times. Various claims have been made but they come down to saying that people believe that the big two are price gouging - that is raising prices much more than the increase in their costs, inflation and other matters outside their control.

“Coles and Woolworths have both recorded over a billion dollars in profits this year and most people feel like they’re being fleeced,” says Kirkland.
[bolding added]

In the more detailed article more information is given.

We have regarding Woolworths:

Earnings from the company’s Australian supermarkets alone (before tax and interest) was $2.86 billion, a whopping 19% year-on-year leap.

That tells us that in year two numbers were different by 19%. It doesn’t tell us if that was because the first was rather small, the second rather big or some combination, nor does it tell us why. I don’t know why either but there are many possibilities.

In my mind there is no doubt it is true that many people firmly believe the duopoly is having a lend of them. Yet Choice does not establish by any independent measure that Colesworths is doing that. They may be, they may not, delving into balance sheets and annual reports to determine exactly why organisations are making big profits this year is a matter for experts - beyond me and it seems beyond Choice too.

I think that the frequent observation by many qualified commentators that Australia has too much market concentration in some industries to be healthy to be true. In particular the supermarket duopoly/duopsony is bad for consumers and suppliers.

However Choice has done nothing in the Shonkys this year to establish that the big two are in fact cashing in on this occasion; emphasising that a survey shows we think so and quoting selected anecdotes is not evidence of that, it is evidence we believe that.

I think the first item above should be amended to a comment that is supported by data:

Woolworths and Coles – for being very unpopular

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How long is the piece of string? A pricing decision I noticed at Woolies has been that prices have gone up while rewards members get ‘discounts’ that reflect the previous price point - sometimes. Other times the special Woolies member-only price is higher than Coles regular price! It is beyond this weeks and that weeks specials and has become the norm. It is game playing pretending to offer discounts while raising their average sale price and thus margin in my anecdotal opinion.

Documenting the numbers of similar ‘special’ pricing decisions would require more than one PhD dissertation to be funded. Getting the raw data would be challenging in itself.

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I agree as the shonky seem to be based on opinion…

we asked a nationally representative sample of Australians what they thought about the prices charged by the big supermarkets. We found that more than 60% of shoppers believe the price increases seen at the duopoly are not simply due to higher costs.

So Choice relies on the views of consumers which have been influenced by the politics of inflation, rather than reviewing objective information such company reports, grocery and supplier data etc.

This in itself could be seen as being shonky.

Edit: And why single out Coles and Woolworths - oh yes, because they are required to by law publish their business financials. How about the others? Aldi for example has had many criticisms from its customers (a few included in the community) about significant price rises. Aldi also makes a huge profit from its relatively modest revenue, and its profit (in 2022 financial year) on revenue is about calculated to be 50% or more that of Coles and Woolworths (8.4% compared to ~4-5%). It could easily be argued they are ripping off their customers more than its competitors. Where is the hoopla about Aldi? Haven’t looked at the others (IGA individual franchises, Costco or other independents), but the shonkys could easily be seen as being popularistic or bias. Territory Choice should not want to find itself in.

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How on earth does Roy Morgan get this result?

Or “how Roy Morgan became the least trusted pollsters”.

The ‘most trusted’ is a relative term :wink:

Personally I do not trust many to do more than manipulate customers to their best ability.

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On Personal Alarms and monitoring- Home Guardian is an innovative product and much needed in the Aged and Disability space. https://homeguardian.ai/ I agree that the older style personal alarms are ineffective and difficult to navigate. **Edited to add I work in the Ageing advocacy space and have seen the impacts of the personal alarms not being effective for older folks or people with disability to navigate and as a result, paying for these alarms that are ultimately being left in a drawer, or not calling for help when the fall isn’t recognised by the device.

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Re Coles and Woolies, although this is a ‘report’ it implies some information from the respective management.

Coles and rival Woolworths have enjoyed a period of bumper returns after raising grocery prices at a faster pace than inflation, leading to increased profit margins during a period of financial strain for many households. … The supermarket chains have consistently denied price-gouging allegations and have credited improved productivity for increasing profitability.

Isn’t the idea of capitalism and competition that improved productivity should ideally throttle price increases, notwithstanding we have but faux competition in Australia? Sorry, I forget - business’ #1 mission is maximising shareholder value.

If it is difficult to connect the dots about improved margins delivering improved profits so be it. The Shonky recognises times have been tough and maybe a business could get positive recognition for not ‘going for it’ in lieu of recognition ‘for going for it’? There is a difference between public and private companies as well as respective market share to single the duopoly out. One could imagine Aldi got emboldened to follow because they too ‘maximise shareholder value’ although Aldi as a business has only a family to answer to.

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I appreciate the scrutiny @syncretic and @phb. It is important to remember that the work we do and subsequent items we publish come with different intent, for example a policy submission will be referenced, include data and is important to decision makers but rarely in news headlines. The Shonkys on the other hand is about raising awareness, hopefully attracting the attention of the national zeitgeist and also passing the ‘pub test’ in an accessible way. In our experience, you need both, but don’t doubt that the latter can be a powerful tool to effect positive change.

However, that’s not to take away from the criticism, which we’re always happy to take on board. In our mission to meet our intent, I can see we haven’t made the justification for some. As we’re all aware, the issues with the duopoly are complex and can encompass everything from state planning to market concentration. Perhaps we would have done well to signpost this better, or to produce some accompanying material.

Nonetheless, I will attempt to clear up some of the points being raised as best I can.

Earnings from the company’s Australian supermarkets alone (before tax and interest) was $2.86 billion, a whopping 19% year-on-year leap.

That tells us that in year two numbers were different by 19%. It doesn’t tell us if that was because the first was rather small, the second rather big or some combination, nor does it tell us why. I don’t know why either but there are many possibilities.

There are a number of reports available, but for the purpose of this reply, there is a relatively concise and clear summary here from The Guardian.

From the article here’s a snapshot over time to give reference to supermarket profitability:

Also from The Guardian analysis,

“This is the highest margin for the groceries division recorded at Woolworths, according to analysis over the past decade when its previous high-margin liquor business is stripped out of calculations.”

In my mind there is no doubt it is true that many people firmly believe the duopoly is having a lend of them. Yet Choice does not establish by any independent measure that Colesworths is doing that. They may be, they may not, delving into balance sheets and annual reports to determine exactly why organisations are making big profits this year is a matter for experts - beyond me and it seems beyond Choice too.

This is a fair question and I’ll do my best to answer below. However, while some of the underlying reasons may be about the dangers of duopolies, economic theory, government policy or more, we awarded this Shonky to point out the behaviour of Coles and Woolworths in the context of the cost of living crisis happening right now.

So why are they making big profits? According to Coles and Woolworths it’s due to improved ‘efficiencies’. I think this means stagnant wage growth and redundancies as both warehouse and retail workers are replaced with machines. On reported figures in the news, the redundancies measure into the thousands, and in the Woolworths annual report under the supply chain network review there is 103 million allocation to redundancies, however this is across the entire group. While we obviously can’t calculate on specific wages, even at a guesstimate, we are still billions short of a justification on this basis. Of course these are efficiencies, but it appears none were passed on to the consumer.

So are there other justifications for the excessive profits? Well, it can’t be down to suppliers and farmers hiking prices. It’s complicated because depending on the produce, prices may go up and down, but generally supplier prices increase steadily like everything else, but not enough to account for the huge profits - there’s no broad deficit from previous years that the supermarkets are chasing down forexample. Supplier industries are likely to be biased of course, but there’s a huge amount of evidence that farmers and producers are not receiving the benefit or flow-on effects.

This report from the ANZ taking data from the U.N makes the point:

So does this mean commodity prices and returns to farmers are the single biggest driving factor in the cost on Aussie supermarket shelves? The same data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) would tend to suggest this isn’t the case.

At the same time retail food prices in Australia have increased 138 per cent, total prices paid to farmers have increased by 111 per cent. In Canada, which is similarly positioned, food prices have only increased by 82 per cent compared with farmers’ prices which have increased by 103 per cent.

It’s also worth noting our supermarket profit margins far outpace other larger markets.

A number of economists have pointed out the much more likely explanation for the profits is a lack of competition.

While all this might be unpleasant, at this point you might still think, oh well ‘that’s business’. However, this is where the context of the cost of living crisis and the pandemic comes into play. At this time, many people did not have an opportunity to shop around, many stores not being open or out of distance.

To further confound the issue, we have hundreds of examples on this forum alone of showing ‘specials’ on items actually suffering from shrinklation, ‘everyday low prices’ that keep going up and a new trend of converting regular Woolworth stores to high-priced ‘Metros’. Prices between stores located in the same area or online can vary wildly - it goes on.

If there was another explanation, Woolworths and Coles PR machine would be onto this. The reality is they increased prices beyond any other justification and achieved record break profits as a result, ripping off Australian and affecting those struggling the most the worst.

Coles and Woolworths have received special support from governments and communities for many years, from development and planning to special treatment during the pandemic. But it was tolerated due to the social contract necessary with a essential goods business. They employed people, they were’t always too cutthroat and they left people enough room for a few small pleasures on their shop. Well, excessive profit taking and ongoing pricing trickery has surely eroded those benefits and the social contract along with it. Hopefully, it is now the subject of future regulatory and consumer protection, as many other countries in the world enjoy.

I hope that helps justify the ‘cashing in’ comment as opposed to just saying they are unpopular, and explains why we think they earned their Shonky.

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I can confirm that the selection of Coles and Woolworths for the Shonky was in no way related to their legal obligations for being privately listed companies. Coles and Woolworths account for around 70% of the grocery supermarket share in Australia (source, source)

The big two account for about 40% of all retail and 70% of alcohol retail, although Woolies seperated their alcohol and pokie business into another company called Endeavor, at one point Woolies was also the biggest poker machine owner in Australia.

Aldi, is also pretty big, but not compared to the big two. However, this isn’t a Shonky based on who makes the most profits, businesses will naturally make the most of profits. As I mentioned in other reply, this is about the conduct in making those profits combined with the context of a pandemic and affordability crises, considering the many special considerations they have received to put them in a position to receive such phenomenal profits.

That’s not a defence of Aldi though, we regularly call out and criticise some of their terrible products. They may even earn a Shonky in the future, but this time, we felt that Coles and Woolworths were more deserving.

Just a note on surveys, I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate to write these off as populist. As a member funded organisation, I think it’s imperative for us to listen to members and take on criticism and to connect with members in a variety of ways. Those same surveys also help inform us about things like product reliability, or consumer issues we may not fully understand yet. Although I do not wish to take away from your point about the Coles and Woolworths Shonky, I appreciate including more data would have been useful. However, I feel the surveys we conduct are valuable, we have a specialist team to carry out this process scientifically and we appreciate all the people who take the time to complete them.

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While profit are large, they don’t truly represent the impact on consumers and whether a consumer is being ‘ripped off’. Why, because there are many businesses which rip off their customers, but make losses from time to time (a good example is the airlines).

If Choice believes that high profits means consumers are being ‘ripped off’, why didn’t it award the Shonky to Costco as its profits are significantly higher than Woolworths or Coles. If one looks at Aldi business as whole, it’s profit is higher as well. This is where Choice’s argument about profit as a measure of consumer being ripped off for Woolworths and Cole’s doesn’t stack up.

Net profit margins (or cents profit for each dollar spent) is a better representative of impact of a supermarket’s business on its consumers.

As I indicated, Coles and Woolworths have lower percentage profit margins than Aldi (I haven’t checked others to see what their margins are but to be thorough, Choice should have done this for the shonkys). While Aldi doesn’t present its financial reports for Australia, there has been calculations of net profit margins by those with some knowledge of the sector and from tax disclosure information.

Aldi in 2022 (likely to be similar in 2023, if not more if their price hikes are similar to Woolworths and Coles) Aldi made around 8-9c from every customer for each dollar spent. In 2023, Woolworths and Coles made 5-6 cents for every dollar spent. While Aldi may have generally cheaper products (~15% lower) as they are focused on store branded items, they make more profit from each dollar their customer spends than the ‘duopoly’. Why hasn’t Choice raised this and included Aldi in the shonky. I am sure that others in the sector will have similar or concerning figures. This also indicates that if Aldi became as big as Woolworths or Coles, its profits by comparison would be substantially larger.

I agree with your statements about the supermarket sector and also risks of only two major players in the supermarket sector. But the industry has more than two players and why have others in the sector been ignored?

The problem appears to be potentially industry wide (maybe even further across the whole supply chain) which the shonky could have been rightfully awarded. It is also a worldwide industry phenomenon if one looks at media coverage in other developed countries - supermarket profit margins in other countries have has similar percentage increases to that of Coles and Woolworths in the past 12-18 months (including those in Canada and UK). It is acknowledged Woolworths and Coles net profit margin has a higher base (about 1% higher).

But on the other hand, food inflation has been similar to inflation percentages measured by the ABS in determining CPI. If it was significantly higher (like fuel prices), then finger pointing should occur. The increase in supermarket profit margins are a small proportion of all the measured food inflation. The question which h should be asked is where has most of additional cost of foods gone? Has it gone to the primary producer, manufacturer, wholesaler or for transport? If most hasn’t gone to the supermarkets, it must have gone to one of these.

It is also worth noting that for much of the past decade, food pricing have been in stagnation or deflation. During this time, generally the supermarkets posted year on year profit increases (Woolworths in 2015 recorded a $2.146B profit during price stagnation and was higher than its 2022-2023 profit of $1.6B). So, the supermarkets were also profiteering (or ‘ripping off’ customers) during times when there weren’t any real price rises. Were they also ‘ripping off’ customers at these times as well?

Cherry picking Woolworths and Coles might pass the pub test and the average punter wanting to apportion blame for food inflation, but, Choice has pointed the finger at the big two rather than pointing the finger at the sector as a whole.

I am unsure why Choice has done this, but assume it follows on from the media including the Guardian, ABC and other major media outlets which have solely focussed on Coles and Woolworths. This appears to follow the Australian tradition of focussing on the ‘tall poppies’.

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Kogan got me in January, I would not have subscribed, at least with Amazon there’s other benefits. I’ve searched my emails and only see a welcome to the free trial and then after the subscribe money taken a welcome to subscription.
I’ve not used them since so money wasted… I’ve made sure auto renew is off.

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I’m wondering why Qantas failed to receive a Double Gong for its 2023 treatment of consumers? A extension of its dishonourable mention and winning ways which saw it earn a 2022 Shonky.

  • Does Qantas deserve a special place in the Shonky Awards?
  • Should there be a “Hall of Shame Award” for repeat offenders (Business or industry)?

P.S.
Perhaps one day Choice might also be offering up “Most Improved Student” (past shonky winners) awards for exceptional turn arounds when a business or product manufacturer recants. Might need a leader board with gold stars to recognise each step towards redemption.

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I am aware of that aim and I know that it will never be obtained with a dry recitation of facts or an academic paper, the material has to be accessible. There are ways of doing that which also mention or point to the justification behind it without getting too boring.

Attracting attention is quite redundant in this case case as 80% of the magazine article was that the people already hold the view that they are being exploited, as anybody who reads the letters to the editor of newspapers, or listens to pub or ladies’ luncheon gossip, or follows social media will know. Adding depth to the pile-on without the reasons for it is not so constructive when people are already aroused - except in politics of course where that is bread and butter.

Thanks for the additional information which does help, it would have been better if more could read it.

At the risk of talking to myself; if Choice had shown that many customers had complained about the cooling ability and the inefficiency of the Mini Fridge, but Choice had not done any measurements of either, it would have been very unfair to give the fridge a Shonky just because it was a popular sentiment.

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Samsung have received back-to-back gongs in the past, so it’s not out of the question. Currently the ACCC is taking court action against Qantas, so that is a factor, but I think you’re right, they could have earned it. We’ve run some positive awards in the past, most recently the Shinys, so it’s not beyond the realms to do something like a most improved :+1:

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The article mainly relies on popularist statements as justification to award the Shonky to Coles and Woolworths. The aim of the article appear to be an at attempt to simply add fuel to the rage that supermarkets are ripping us off, without providing a lot of substance. Choice can and should do better. Slanted and poorly written survey questions also give the same outcome.

Product reviews are a great example of when Choice does better, by providing factual information and insights which often debunk marketing generated public perceptions about product quality.

I sympathise with @BrendanMays who was landed with the task of hastily writing a defence for the decision. However, the choice of quoting The Guardian ahead of studying the relevant Annual Reports, listing some questionable figures, providing contradictory information and insinuating that Aldi and other retailers aren’t as bad as Colesworth don’t help the cause.

Whilst we are all free to cherry pick any data, the figure I find most relevant is how much of the income is left for business owners after all expanses, including tax, have been paid.

Whilst information specific to the food or supermarket operation is not available, the growth in after tax profit of each company was less than 5% for the 2023 financial year. Compared to the corresponding CPI increase of 6%, it doesn’t indicate that the supermarkets ripped us off to the extent that Choice and others would have you believe.

I consider that Choice should receive a self-awarded Shonky.

Putting all of the above aside, there is no doubt that all supermarkets, along with most other retailers, use marketing tricks to have us part with more cash than is necessary. The Choice advice on how to minimise this is appreciated by many, as would some well researched information about who might be ripping us off more than others and how they are doing this.

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I wish to add about how bad our protection laws, are when overseas country’s have better protection against consumers. We need to change.

A few members think singling out Coles and Woolies unfair and it was rightly grocers. I suggest it should be ‘business’. In spite of COVID, rising prices throughout the supply chain, shortages of workers, name a ‘reason’, our banks have reported historic high profits and now Maccas has followed along in Australia and globally with what they call ‘strategic price rises’.

Dividends are not all up and some are down and some have not been paid for years, business dependent, while some businesses are using their record profits for share buybacks that in theory increase their share prices - and a cynic might wonder if executive bonuses might be tied to share prices?

I acknowledge some sectors have seen more than a fair share of collapses, administration, and it is tough, but how to reference those who appear to have taken all their own increases and turned them into historically high profits escapes me. Could be ‘The profiteers’ does it?

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Looking at Net Profits After Tax (NPAT) which was the 2021-22 to 2022-23 number causing the hysteria with some sections of the media…

For Woolworths, this increase in net profit is for one year only. The Woolworths 2022-23 net profit is $1.62B, which is within the range of profits which have occurred in the past 9 years:


(source statista.com and confirmed on the Woolworths Group Investor website)

It is also less than the profit which had occurred for 5 of the past 9 years. Also less than the average for the past 9 years being $1.76B.

Likewise Coles, its net profit for the past 5 years has been $1,435M (2018-19), $978M (2019-20) $1,005M (2020-21), $1,048M (2021-22) and for the current year $1,098M (Source Coles 5 year summary report). The 2022-23 is not dissimilar to Woolworths where it is within the range of past profits (over past 5 years) and also less than the yearly average of $1112M.

The profits announced by Woolworths and Coles aren’t historically high and less than that which has occurred in recent years. The argument of profiteering does not stack up. If it did, there would be a substantial increase above long term trend in profit, above recent yearly averages and also similar to or significantly more than the consumer price (or food inflation) rates measured by the ABS in the past 12 months. None of these have occurred.

While I agree with Choice on most things, this is unfortunately a time that I can not agree with Choice for the awarded shonky. Choice can cherry pick data to try and argue why it has awarded the Shonky, but, this is not supported by the public financial reporting of Woolworths or Coles. A simple review of published financial data (which most knowledgeable investors do when making decisions about investing) would have shown it was a furphy.

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