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Grocery Prices – the Australian situation and current controversy

There is an interesting controversy breaking in the consumer affairs / grocery prices area in Australia at the moment.

There, the government had set up and funded a grocery price comparison website called Grocery Choice. The site was originally set up in 2008 with the aim of helping “consumers compare the general price levels of supermarket chains in their area”.

The Australian equivalent of the Irish Consumers Association of Ireland, Consumer Choice, was contracted by the government to take on the running of the site once it was set up. Consumer Choice was tasked with improving the relevance and performance of the site and its contents.

The Grocery Choice website is available here and details of their methodology is available here.

Essentially, the Grocery Choice website is the Australian equivalent of the Irish National Consumer Agency grocery price comparison surveys but with key differences.

The Australian survey is carried out monthly instead of twice a year here in Ireland. The Australian survey provides a regional breakdown of prices as well as a breakdown by supermarket chain.

The reason for the controversy – the Australian government has cancelled its support and funding for this Grocery Choice initiative.

And the reason for the closure of the site? It’s not up to date enough – despite being monthly and surveying more than 600 stores. So, while our government and the National Consumer Agency are proud of their 6-monthly grocery price comparison surveys carried out in 13 stores out of which they take significant meaning and importance, yet according to this article, the Grocery Choice website was closed because:

The website immediately attracted criticism last year. Information was updated only once a month and price comparisons were broad and generic.
Mr Emerson (Australian Consumer Affairs Minister) had said from the outset that it was not feasible to publish reliable, timely information on grocery prices for consumers, a view held by many critics.
“The fact is that in Australia, there are thousands of supermarkets and even more thousands of grocery items,” he said.
“The information requirements would have been enormous and they’re just not feasible, in my view.”

The last NCA grocery survey was published last February, for prices in December 2008/January 2009. I guess, therefore, we can expect another survey soon enough.

There is a growing campaign in Australia calling for the government decision to be reversed with certain quarters questioning the motivations behind the closure of the site. The site was actually due for relaunch within 5 days of its closure and it was believed that the enhancements to the site for that relaunch would have made it more useful and would counteract some of the criticism mentioned above.
The closure is a roll-back on a government election campaign promise, but some are saying that it’s the undue influence of the larger grocery chains and their requirement for less price transparency that’s behind the decision.
I’m going to come back to this topic in the near future as I believe neither of these methods of grocery price comparison are sufficient, but also because I know that (in the face of certain potentially large difficulties) there is an eminently more effective, up to date, and accurate grocery price comparison methodology possible at relatively little cost to set up and with very little ongoing maintenance costs.

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