Stephen Long’s aggressive anti-Woolies story on Four Corners last night was a hit as 1.037 million punters tuned in, only the third time Australia’s flagship investigative journalism program has cracked 1 million viewers this year.

And while Woolies would not have enjoyed the skewering, CEO Michael Luscombe should be given credit for fronting up and answering the hard questions, whilst Coles and Wesfarmers were nowhere to be seen.

Even better, the Woolies supermarkets boss Naum Onikul participated in the Four Corners online forum last night along with 186 other contributors. He answered questions about everything from the booming Maleny store, broccoli, the much larger global purchasing power of Costco and Aldi and the fact that 50% of Woolworths’s 450 farmer suppliers have been with the supermarket giant for more than 20 years.

After the widespread disappointment with the recent ACCC inquiry into grocery prices, Four Corners provided plenty of ammunition for those concerned about Australia’s unique and hugely profitable grocery duopoly.

Mixed in with predictable tales of hardship from farmers and independent retailers, Stephen Long’s biggest coup was landing former Woolies CEO Reg Clairs, who criticised a range of features about his former employer.

Whilst Clairs was forced out early in 1998 after not doing enough to control costs, it was highly unusual for him to go public about Woolies pushing the power envelope. However, it should also have been disclosed that Clairs is currently a director of rival retailer David Jones and the Commonwealth Bank, which enjoyed an unhappy banking joint venture with Woolworths that has now been disbanded.

It was a little surprising that Long didn’t paint the big financial picture with Woolies, which speaks volumes about its abuse of power.

When it floated at just $2.45 a share in 1993, sales were less than $10 billion, but next year they will crack $50 billion.

After last week’s booming 26% jump in annual profit to $1.63 billion, Woolies shares powered back through $28 as its market capitalisation hit $34 billion. Throw in more than $5 in fully franked dividends and shareholders have made more than 13 times.

Whilst customers are doing okay, the comparisons with Aldi show they could do much better and the biggest loser in this game is long-suffering suppliers. Nothing demonstrates this better than the growth in negative stock or payables over the past five years:

2003-04: -$326m
2004-05: -$360m
2005-06: -$1.25bn
2006-07: -$1.44bn
2007-08: -$1.8bn

Pushing out supplier terms to the extent where Woolies now has $4.8 billion in payables and only $3 billion in inventories on its balance sheet, just demonstrates brutal market power at work.

*Stragglers Amazing Home Loans, City Pacific and Record Realty yesterday lifted the $100m loss club for 2007-08 to a staggering 29 entries.