The Howard government’s decision to charge GST on menstrual pads and tampons, with the logic that these are “luxury items”, has outraged Australian women since July 2000. This decision certainly seems odd, considering that products exempt from GST include sunscreen, condoms, personal lubricants, folate supplements and quit-smoking products.

And Australian women aren’t alone in getting angry: British women have argued that pads and tampons should be sponsored by the National Health Service, while Americans want tampons to be free.

Although there are other ways of preventing blood from dripping out between your legs to stain your clothes and smear all over floors and furnishings, disposable pads and tampons are still the mainstream choice for most menstruating Australians.

There was some hope that the Rudd government would remove the GST, but things remain much the same.

Then Coles came wading into this bloody standoff with a heroic promise to reduce the price of all its 100-odd feminine hygiene products by 10%. “You shouldn’t be taxed for being a woman,” said the Coles catalogue, adding that the supermarket chain would pay this onerous tax, “so that you don’t have to”.

The move came from Coles market research that showed 75 per cent of female respondents were unhappy with the price of feminine hygiene products. “We’ve acted on our customers’ concerns and so we’ve made an ongoing commitment to reduce the price of all feminine hygiene products sold in our stores by about 10 per cent, effectively removing the cost burden of the GST from our customers,” said Coles marketing director Joe Blundell.

Catalogues are generally looked down on in the advertising world, being below the industry’s version of the Mason-Dixon line, but Coles has been doing some great catalogue work recently.

That’s how we should consider this. It’s actually a brilliant marketing move to transform a routine price rollback into a political gesture, making Coles look socially responsible as well as responsive to its customers. It also woos new customers who might previously have shopped elsewhere.

The commercial benefits of this policy to Coles are so far unclear.

“We’ve had a lot of positive customer feedback, which didn’t come as much of a surprise to us — we’ve known for a while anecdotally that this was not a popular tax,” Coles spokesman Jim Cooper told Crikey.

While Cooper was cagey about specifics, he did admit the price reduction had “a pretty solid sales benefit.”

Coles also engages in other community-friendly price reductions. After feedback from customers following a recent fuel discount revealed that senior customers didn’t drive, and didn’t shop in large enough quantities to qualify for the discount, Coles today introduced a 24-hour, 10 per cent discount, storewide, for Seniors cardholders.

However, the company will limit its goodwill to its own commercial activities. “We’re not a lobby group; we’re a retailer,” Cooper says. “We wouldn’t call it lobbying; we’d call it acting on customer feedback.”

Just as well. As a political protest, it’s lazy and cynical.

It hardly costs the retailer anything, and it doesn’t have to address the underlying situation. What’s next — promising to solve the problem of student poverty with a groundbreaking price reduction in instant noodles?

Seriously, though, supermarket chains could totally take this war over menstruating customers much, much further. How about a permanent Red Spot Special at all Woolworths stores? And perhaps IGA could run a new ad campaign emphasising that, like pads and tampons, its stores come in three sizes: X-press, regular and Supa.

They could also take a leaf from the booksellers and band together in a lobby group (the Coalition For Cheaper Tampons?). Then they could head to Canberra to lobby for the removal of the GST, thus becoming the heroes of women everywhere!

As the Dymocks example has shown, commercial self-interest looks a lot better when it’s disguised as “thinking about the customers”.