Coles has said it’s “always exploring ways to reduce prices,” while Woolworths says it is “working to deliver relief” from high prices. Supply chain costs, inflation, construction costs and energy prices have all contributed to high prices, the major supermarkets say.
But let’s forget the media commentary, the politician sound bytes and the supermarket public messaging for a moment. What are ordinary Australians saying about supermarket pricing?
To find out more, I analysed 10,025 comments made on Reddit using Python programming software. Reddit is a network of online communities where like-minded people can discuss topics of mutual interest. The comments were drawn from the Reddit groups r/australian and r/australia and r/AustralianPolitics.
My research, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, revealed five key themes dominated these discussions.
1. ‘ColesWorth’: the two brands knitted together
These Redditors often used a particular portmanteau in their discussion: “ColesWorth”.
This term, which seems to imply many see no real difference between the two retailers, negatively knits together two brands. It was also interesting to note how often Redditors used the word “they” to refer – fairly indiscriminately – to Coles and Woolworths.
This suggests a real public image problem for Coles and Woolworths, as the actions of one chain come to influence how the other is perceived.
One illustrative Reddit comment said:
We need to make sure ColesWorth aren’t hurting our citizens.
2. ‘Duopoly’ concerns
Many Redditors expressed concern about what they saw as a duopoly, a term that showed up frequently.
One commenter, for instance, said:
Who could’ve guessed in Australia we’ve allowed our newspapers to be run by a monopoly, our banks by a Big Four effectively acting like a monopoly, and our supermarkets becoming a duopoly.
On the Senate inquiry, another said:
This is good news. This brand duo will certainly feel the heat of more scrutiny, possibly curbing their monopoly in the short term.
A different Redditor opined:
Coles and Woolworths’ duopoly should split up, but I doubt that Labor would have the guts, and the LNP (Liberal National Party) wouldn’t do it, so things will return to normal soon enough.
3. Perturbed by profits
Coles and Woolworths made net profits in 2022-23 of A$1.1 billion and A$1.62 billion, respectively.
Many Redditors expressed concern about supermarket profits. One commenter wrote:
They can charge higher and higher prices for basic necessities, and there’s nothing we can do about it except pay up or starve.
Big business changes when its customers revolt; in a profit-focused world it’s boycott or accept.
4. The Aldi alternative
Supermarket chain Aldi, which markets itself as a cheaper alternative to Coles and Woolworths, was frequently mentioned by these Redditors.
Coles and Woolworths keep hiking prices for years, but thankfully we have at least Aldi to keep them in check.
A different Redditor said:
Woolies prices floored me […] for everyday food items. Ended up going to Aldi instead.
We have greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers for fresh stuff. Aldi or IGA for tinned and dry goods. The best part is if you do this, the price drops for you straight away, and, in theory, for everyone else in time.
This suggests the stiff competition Woolworths and Coles already face from Aldi (and other alternatives) is not going away any time soon.
5. Calls for government action
Many commenters sought government intervention, while others were sceptical it would ever happen or would help.
Some linked the Senate inquiry to similar past investigations in banking, aged care and health, dismissing them as “a waste of taxpayers’ money” that would bring no tangible outcomes.
One commenter wrote:
Corporations wield more influence than voters over the major parties, and so will continue to get their way as long as this remains.
Some called for “full federalisation” of supermarkets, the breakup of “monopolies” and even for the arrest of high-level management at Coles and Woolworths.
Many of these proposals seem unlikely but such comments show the depth of consumer anger about supermarket pricing.
Why do online conversations about brands matter?
Clearly, social media doesn’t include everyone in Australia and while the Reddit community is large it isn’t a representative sample of broader Australian society. An element of selection bias is at play.
However, the anger on display in these forums does indicate Coles and Woolworths face difficult brand risks. The advent of the “ColesWorth” phenomenon must be particularly worrying for the two brands, which may now struggle not to be tarred with the same brush even if they make radical changes to differentiate themselves from their competitors.
The comments I analysed show the supermarket pricing story is not just a media beat-up. People are talking about the issue, suggesting a shift to supporting local or cheaper businesses and calling for government action on pricing.
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Kanika Meshram, The University of Melbourne.
Kanika Meshram does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.