The ACCC today launched an unprecedented Federal Court case against Woolworths regarding the safety of several products the supermarket chain has historically sold through its various retail brands. One such product is an Abode deep fryer, which was one in a series of Woolworths-sourced appliances to be recalled in recent years due to serious health and safety concerns.
In addition to this appliance, the ACCC is also citing a drain cleaner product and a home brand box of matches in its claim against the publicly listed giant. “The ACCC alleges that by offering these products for sale, Woolworths represented that they were safe when they were not, and that by continuing to sell them once it was aware these products may have caused serious injury Woolworths continued to make false or misleading representations that these products were safe.”
Between May 2011 and September 2013, Woolworths instituted nine product recalls of Abode-brand appliances. This makes it the most recalled brand since 1998, which is as far back as the Product Recalls website documents. In this midst of this tsunami of recalls, Appliance Retailer campaigned for Woolworths to take responsibility and commit to sourcing safer and more reliable private label appliances. In August 2012, this author sent an Open Letter to Woolworths CEO Grant O’Brien demanding the company fix its quality control procedures.
Woolworths eventually responded to our enquiries, with a spokesperson saying, “The safety of the products our customers use is of paramount importance to use which is why we ensure all our products go through multiple quality assessments. Where a fault is found…we take steps to investigate and rectify those issues”.
The ACCC, however, is not satisfied that Woolworths has done enough.
“Consumers are entitled to expect that the goods that they purchase from retailers are safe, and that retailers will act swiftly when product defects are subsequently identified, to avoid further potential harm to consumers,” ACCC chairman Rod Sims said. “Companies should ensure that they have effective quality assurance processes in place to prevent unsafe products from reaching their shelves. This is particularly the case where companies look to reduce costs in their supply chain by directly sourcing home brand products from overseas manufacturers.”
This practice of retailers ‘playing supplier’ has been fraught with recalls, not just by Woolworths, but also Target, Officeworks, Bunnings and Kmart. The industry has seen grills recalled due to risk of electrocution, ‘shocking’ steam mops pulled from sale, deep fryers splattering users with hot oil, electric blankets presenting a fire risk, multicookers ‘ejecting’ food at users and radiant heaters rejected due to a burn risk.
This has led to suppliers speaking out against the practice; uncharacteristic because brands normally only say nice things publicly about retailers. Breville, Sunbeam and GAF Control have all spoken out against the influx of cheap appliances from non-traditional sources.
“The biggest change [over thee past 25 years] has been major retailers trying to be importers and every other thing rather than being retailers and getting it all wrong,” said GAF Control founder Stuart Foley. GAF markets Tiffany, Heller and Pye, among other brands.
“Retailers thought importing directly would save another margin and would result in them having bigger profit margins but it’s caused them a lot of angst.”
Also incorporated into this court action are a chair and stepping stool that the ACCC alleges cannot “withstand the maximum weight load stated on their packaging”.
“All suppliers have an obligation to ensure that any product defects identified are dealt with swiftly to prevent harm to consumers,” Rod Sims said. “This includes ensuring that any serious injury or illness associated with a product is reported promptly and that recall action is taken where appropriate.”
“The ACCC is seeking pecuniary penalties, declarations, injunctions, findings of fact, publicity orders, an order that Woolworths implement a product safety compliance program, an order that Woolworths publish information to raise consumer awareness about product safety and how to report safety incidents, and costs.”
Directions will be heard in Sydney on 4 November 2014.