Coles vs. Woolies: Who won the Senate battle royale?

The CEOs from Coles and Woolworths were grilled in a Senate inquiry yesterday regarding allegations of price gouging and duopolistic practices, and the real winner was anyone lucky enough to be watching along, popcorn in one hand, other hand shielding their eyes from the fallout.

Put simply: it was a car crash, and the reputational damage is likely to be immense. But who came out best? Coles or Woolworths?  We ask the PR experts.

Sally Branson, crisis communications expert

Unless you’ve got a particular interest in supermarkets that extends from worrying why one paper bag filled with groceries costs over $100, the average consumer won’t be too focused on the detail of yesterday’s Senate inquiry. They’ll skim the headlines they see pop up. From that, Woolworths is the clear enemy of the people.

Issues like Australia Day continue to haunt the group, with Facebook pages already dedicated to calling for a boycott if ANZAC Day products aren’t stocked. Then add the recent events of an interview walkout and a CEO resignation within the week -today’s headlines of a CEO threatened with jail time – there is no headline to conjure up robber better than “CEO faces jail time”.

The content or context of what Brad Banducci did or didn’t say doesn’t really matter – all that matters is the fiery, clashing headlines. Politicians are pretty low on the trust scale, but in this day and age, supermarkets rank lower.

Dr. Neryl East, speaker and leadership credibility expert

Submissions to the Senate hearing about suppliers being pushed to the wall mean neither of the big two supermarket giants have come out of this week’s hearing unscathed – but Woolworths has deeper wounds to treat.

Woolies has captured the lion’s share of headlines – for all the wrong reasons – thanks to the behaviour of CEO Brad Banducci and his apparent evasion of questions.

His previous ABC interview attempted walk-out ensured attention would be squarely focused on him and the Senate appearance was an opportunity to demonstrate a different level of behaviour.

It was a chance to rebuild a shred of trust between Woolworths and the community – but it fell well short, simply reinforcing a perception of aloofness and being above the rules.

Coles had the advantage of going second, later in the day, when major media had already written their headlines about the Woolworths fiery exchange. Coles’ leaders also took a more moderate approach – appearing to listen and show concern, even if they didn’t fully address all questions.

Like the Woolies CEO’s last public display, people will be talking about the controversy itself long after they talk about the issue at the centre of the controversy. So, in my book it’s Coles 1, Woolworths 0.

Benjamin Haslem – Icon Agency

Any CEO worth their salt preparing to front an enquiry like the Senate’s probe into supermarkets should be aware that they are a political football.

Like a bunch of eager five-year-olds at a Saturday morning soccer match, the Senators will be jostling to get their boots in.

Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci should have known or been briefed that Greens Senator Nick McKim would be coming for him like – to extend the metaphor – a centre back sliding in with his studs raised.

Senator McKim wasn’t interested in adding to the breadth of human knowledge, he was hell-bent in scoring political points that would appeal to his base and the many Australians who feel fed up with the supermarket giants.

Banducci left his goal wide open for the Tasmanian Senator to score.

The outgoing Woolies head should have, from the get go, taken on notice the question about return on equity and said he would get back to the Committee as quickly as possible.

He could have still explained to Senator McKim that ROE isn’t a figure that’s focussed on in the supermarket game.

The senator wouldn’t have been satisfied and undoubtedly rolled out his (likely) pre-prepared line “I’m not interested in your spin or your bullshit” – which was all over social media in a matter of hours – but at least Banducci would likely have avoided the threat of jail time for contempt of the Senate.

Where were Banducci’s advisers. Why wasn’t one sitting behind him ready to slip him a note with the ROE figure? Why wasn’t he prepared with tactics to deal with the Greens’ predictable style of play?

The outcome is more negative publicity for Woolworths and further humiliation for Banducci – at least he didn’t walk out!

As for Coles, its CEO, Leah Weckert would have studied McKim’s tactics on the day and been armed  – if she wasn’t already – with Coles’ ROE figure.

When it was her turn to front the committee she was asked by Senator McKim: if she accepted that return on equity was one way to measure return metrics.

Ms Weckert said yes, “but it’s not a measure we use a lot in the grocery space,” and then revealed Coles’ ROE last year was 31 per cent – five per cent higher than Woolies.

A nil-all draw for Coles that barely dented social media.

Luke Holland – head of strategic communications, Think HQ

Yesterday’s Senate inquiry session was a pretty unedifying affair all round, with an inordinate amount of heat managing to illuminate hardly anything of real value. There was no real “winner” between Coles and Woolworths, who behaved throughout like two angry toddlers being asked by a strict uncle who was responsible for the mess in the toy room.

Greens senator Nick McKim showboated shamelessly, clearly with more of an eye on his clip for evening bulletins than meaningful cross-examination. And on that score, he hit a bullseye, with Woolworths’ CEO Brad Banducci self-destructing again, apparently having learned very little from his disastrous ABC interview a few weeks ago. Coles boss Leah Weckert at least had the foresight to come clean under questioning, the profit margins in her answers passing largely unnoticed in the rush to report on Banducci’s latest public implosion.

It is, in its own way, remarkable that a supermarket CEO being threatened with prison at a Senate hearing seems so utterly unremarkable. And while the political Punch and Judy makes for some amusing copy, it doesn’t bode well for the people who really need this inquiry to deliver – the millions of Aussies doing it tough, and who are just waiting for the places they shop to stop treating them like mugs.

If this opening salvo was anything to go by, they are going to have a long wait.



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