Sydney resident Don* has been stealing milk, vegetables and the nation’s favourite chocolate biscuits, Tim Tams, from supermarkets over the past three years.
The Australian marketing employee, who used a pseudonym to avoid being identified, says he doesn’t set out with an intention to steal, but when there is an opportunity, he pops things into the recycled shopping bag he carries.
The habit started towards the end of the pandemic, when Australian grocery prices rose sharply, hitting a high of over 9 per cent at the end of 2022 according to data tracked by investment bank UBS. Inflation have since come down to about 4.5 per cent, which still remains above the 2.6 per cent just before the pandemic.
Don says even his shopping bag is a measure of austerity because it limits his grocery purchases only to the bare essentials.With the price of other goods including energy also soaring, a cost of living crisis is dominating national discourse in Australia.
Food prices rose sharply amid supply chain issues but have not declined quickly enough despite economic recovery, sparking public furore over potential price gouging by the supermarket duopoly of Coles and Woolworths that controls two-thirds of the grocery market in Australia.
Many countries face similar supply chain and inflation woes, but the sting was greater for Australians after Coles and Woolworths each made a profit of over A$1 billion (US$650.6 million) last year.
The heat on the supermarkets intensified after Alan Fels, the former chair of Australia’s competition watchdog, and the Australian Council of Trade Unions released a report on Wednesday saying the two chains might have been overpricing and had no incentive to lower prices because of little competition.The practice was also prevalent across big businesses like banks and airlines, which have too much market power, the report found.Canberra announced last month it had tasked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to look into pricing and competition in the supermarket sector for another investigation.
Several petitions have been raised against the two supermarkets, including one by self-described “low-income earner” Khia Alana, who struggles to afford dinner more than three nights a week.
Australian comedian Fergus Neal, who last year told his podcast listeners to do their “Australian duty” and steal a lettuce from Woolworths, said people have told him they felt a sense of hopelessness, while other listeners slammed him for inciting crime.
Neal said the supermarkets were aware of the increased theft and steep food prices, but were unlikely to budge because of their power. There is “corporate paralysis” in Australia’s uncompetitive supermarket industry, he added.
“The Woolworths CEO responded to a TikTok that I’ve made, and so he’s obviously aware of it. But they’re not lowering prices or, if they do, it’s always under the guise of ‘a special for a week’ or something like that,” he said.Coles chief executive Leah Weckert told shareholders last year that stock loss, which included theft, rose 20 per cent in the 2023 financial year, adding that the rise in theft correlated with a higher cost of living. Supermarkets have since been ramping up surveillance to deter shoplifters.
Consumer comparison website Finder’s latest survey last month showed that 15 per cent of Australians admitted to stealing in the past year. This is up from 12 per cent in the same survey last October.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics also said retail theft for 2022 increased for the second straight year, although research by New South Wale’s crime bureau last year revealed no direct evidence that cost of living pressures had pushed up food prices.
But what was evident is how much more stressful grocery bills were for Australians compared with a few years ago, Finder said of its survey results.
It is now one of the top three financial stresses for more than 40 per cent of Australians, up from 26 per cent two years ago, the group said.“Stress caused by grocery bills is through the roof right now,” said Graham Cooke, head of consumer research at Finder.
“But we are seeing prices for some grocery items go down … so it does look like they are lowering prices.