The once mighty Coles has fallen on hard times. It is clearly not dead, but it is certainly ailing. Why is this so?

The experts point to many things – but the most important, it is said, is that it is being beaten in toe to toe combat by Woolworth’s in offering value for money across its product range. It is also said that Coles Chief Executive Officer John Fletcher does not have a feel for the grocery and food business, the core of the Coles business and the key to its profitability.

It was once said that you could not be a successful retailer unless you were born with a piece of string in your hand. As string has gone out of fashion, so too has this statement. Yet there are still those who say that the chief executive of a major retailer must have a special feel for this type of business and be able to impart this to the customers.

We have observed in many market research studies over the years that Australians in general, and women in particular, are expert shoppers. They have an eye for the general and for the particular. They can spot a bargain or a fraud from a frightening distance. Although they would not use the same terms as the professional retailers use, they can tell you what image a store is attempting to present, what segment of the market it is aiming for and how successful their strategy is likely to be. Without training they know it all. They live it every day, they enjoy it. It is part of their being.

Politics is nowhere near as important to the average punter as is shopping. They have not internalised it, as they have shopping. Yet the same shrewd instincts, the same critical eye, the same capacity to separate the real from the cant is potentially available to the average punter as election time approaches and he or she is forced by weight of advertising and the weight of words and images in the media to observe this phenomenon, at least for a little while.

Perhaps it takes some time for images to emerge and crystallise. With the benefit of hindsight we can point to a few. The patrician Fraser, for all his rough start, sitting at the oars and letting the boat be carried by the stream. The larrikin Hawke, beloved of the masses, moving the ship of state across rough waters towards a new and unexplored horizon. The visionary Keating taking the ship where the blue sky touched the distant waters – a league too far.

And then you have Howard. A steady hand on the tiller. A safe hand for the new turbulence experienced. The bloke who would deliver us safely to dry land. But with no imagination to tell us what it might look like, or what we might do when we get there which was different from what our parents did forty or fifty years ago.

And just as the shoppers see Coles as old fashioned and out of touch, so they now see the Coalition in a similar way. It’s not a matter of pointing to specific issues, although this can readily be done. Rather it’s a matter of sniffing the general air and sensing that it smells wrong. The punters are now saying that just as John Fletcher is not the man for Coles, so Howard is now not the man for government. It’s almost as simple as that.

If we are right in this, it will matter little what the Coalition says during the election campaign. The mood has changed. A new view about the Coalition is emerging. It is not based, nor will it be based on a rational investigation of particular policies. It is based on impressions and will be fortified when punters find others who support and therefore reinforce their stance. Years later people will look back and wonder why it was so.

But for the present, the fact is, that just like Coles, the Coalition is seen as just not quite up to the mark of their competitors.