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Woolworths pays meaty fine for misleading consumers

The Queensland Office of Fair Trading has fined Woolworths over $100,000 after finding the company made misleading representations with voucher advertising.

The $102,000 civil penalty notice was issued following a QOFT investigation into misleading representations being made on a voucher from the supermarket chain, which offered ‘20% off all meat purchases’.

The QOFT ramped up retail supermarket compliance operations over 2014-15 after market analysis and complaint data indicated that supermarket and grocery store operators were misleading Queensland consumers about the price of some goods.

QOFT Inspectors conducted regular inspections of retail supermarkets, examining the price of goods at the checkout and comparing them with prices displayed in advertising or on the shelf. During this operation, the QOFT took compliance action against a number of major retailers.

In February 2015, the QOFT identified a voucher which was circulated by mailbox drop to homes within the local area of 14 participating supermarkets, situated in and around Brisbane.

The voucher stated ‘20% off all your meat purchases’, when in fact the discount only applied to fresh meat purchased from the Woolworths meat department. It did not apply to meat from the delicatessen, nor frozen or other types of meat.

Consumers purchasing meat, other than from the fresh meat counter, were not automatically given the discount even though the voucher had no conditions on it excluding such purchases.

A subsequent investigation by the QOFT revealed the voucher did not provide any terms and conditions in relation to the offer. Nor did it clarify what type of meat qualified for the discount, making it reasonable to assume that it applied to all types for sale within the store.

Following QOFT intervention, Woolworths changed the terms and conditions of the voucher for subsequent promotions to include print stating ‘must be spent in one transaction on purchases from the Meat Department’.

Fair Trading Executive Director Brian Bauer said while there was no evidence Woolworths deliberately set out to mislead consumers, the rights of consumers needed to be protected.

“Businesses have a legal obligation to check and identify potentially misleading information before distributing it to consumers,” Mr Bauer said.

“Queensland consumers spend a significant percentage of their income in supermarkets and should be able to rely on the representations being made to them by both large and small retailers.

“Savvy consumers often rely on supermarket discount vouchers to ensure they are obtaining the best possible value from their weekly grocery spend.

“Representations made about price should match the price charged to consumers at checkout.

“The Australian Consumer Law (ACL) makes it unlawful for a business to make false or misleading representations about the price of goods. Significant penalties like this $102,000 civil penalty notice may be imposed when breaches are identified.

“An enforcement outcome of this nature acts as a deterrent to all major retailers to ensure they are not providing misleading information to consumers, and are following the ACL.”

Note: The payment of a penalty specified in a civil penalty notice is not an admission of a contravention of the ACL. A civil penalty notice may be issued when OFT has reasonable grounds to believe a person has contravened certain consumer protection laws.

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