You have to wonder if the Woolworths bonus
culture makes executives especially greedy, or whether a thuggish attitude to
small competitors is part of its mission statement. While the ACCC has been
nailing the retail giant in the Federal Court (Crikey yesterday), Woolies has
still been going about its business of trying to prevent competition and limit
choice in the bottled booze business.

Palmers Island General Store, alias Palmers Pit Stop, is pretty much what the name
suggests – a husband-and-wife shop in the village of Palmers Island, six kilometres from
Yamba on NSW’s north coast. It could not
be described as one of the nation’s retail heavyweights.

On a tip from a Crikey subscriber, I rang
co-owner Chris Downing to ask what happened to her plans to open a bottle shop
as part of the business. The story that emerged seems quite standard.

Some 18 months ago, the Downings applied
for the relevant licence from the NSW Liquor Licensing Board. There wasn’t a
single objection, but on the day the application came before the court for approval, up jumped a
Woolworths lawyer.

Woolworths has one of its myriad grog shops
in Yamba, a BWS outlet. Woolworths, Australia’s
biggest liquor retailer, enjoys economies of scale and buying power beyond the
Downings’ imagination, but Woolworths fears its BWS outlet would be adversely
affected by the Palmers Island General Store.

Woolworths objected on whatever grounds it
could. Allegedly the Downings’ shop wasn’t big enough, its car park was not as
good as BWS’s, any profits made by the Downings wouldn’t feed into the
Woolworths executives’ bonus scheme – no, not the last one.

Chris Downing says she heard nine out of
ten people who get those sorts of objections just give up and at first they
thought there was no way they could fight Woolworths either – but then they
decided to anyway. So, after 18 months and $100,000 worth of renovations, plus
untold legal expenses, Palmers Island General Store is still fighting for its
right to offer its customers a service.

More power to the Downings. And the next
time you see or hear one of those smarmy ads suggesting Woolworths is a nice
company, laugh.

Peter Fray

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