Countdown Supermarkets being transformed into Woolworths Australia?

I’m not sure whether many people know this, but Foodtown, Woolworths and Countdown are owned by Progressive, which is owned by Woolworths Australia.

I’m guessing the mishmash of brands is due to the three chains being picked up at different times, and I think Woolworths NZ is distantly related to Woolworths UK as is the Aussie version.

It now looks like Progressive is cleaning up these brands.

Woolworths and Foodtown have traditionally been their upmarket brands (i.e. charge more) and Countdown the cheap and cheerful brand, competing directly with Pak’n’Save part of the locally owned co-op Foodstuffs. I’m a bit hazy about this, so I might be corrected but I think Progressive kept the brands separate because of Commerce Commission concerns about the lack of competition when they picked up Foodtown. How keeping the brands separate was going to achieve competition I can’t work out, it may have been more of a cosmetic difference, but it looks like Progessive now think the time is right for a clean up, possibly because they are lining themselves up to buy The Warehouse.

The first step has been the gradual disappearance over the last month of some Foodtowns, which are being replaced with Countdowns. This may seem a bit odd because, for example, the Greenlane Foodtown which serviced a relatively upmarket area, made sense and replacing it with a budget brand doesn’t. That’s until you go inside. The new fit-outs that accompany the rebranding are a carbon copy of the Aussie Woolworths stores – wider aisles, new deli sections etc – quite unlike the Countdowns, or the Foodtowns.

The produce sections have introduced the same layout and Aussie style black crate system unique to Woolworths Australia, which may seem unremarkable to the consumer, but is a major shift for the NZ market which already has a ‘universal’ returnable crate system.

The most interesting thing about the changes (if indeed this is interesting, because I’m sure some of you have already slipped into a coma) is the actual logo changes. I can’t find any examples of the new logo for Countdown online, but it is striking in that it looks like the same colour scheme as Woolworth Australia.

There’s also been an increase in Australian Woolworths goods instore with their branding – a pleasant step up from the rubbish looking house brands they use in NZ which shouts ‘CHEAP & NASTY’ at you from the shelves. I suspect that in NZ the supermarkets have a team of five-year-old’s with crayons doing the house branding because almost without exception they seemed to have entirely missed the point of branding. People might like to buy cheap goods, but it doesn’t mean they have to look cheap!

I’m wondering if this is part of a stealth campaign to eventually rebrand all Progressives NZ stores as Woolworths (Australian) stores. You might ask why they would not just do it, or why they haven’t done it already? after-all there would be some very sensible synergies and cost savings long term from doing this. I suspect the (possible) stealth comes from the sensitivity around the lack of competition in the supermarket business in NZ, it’s an effective duopoly, and all the cute legal arguments in the world about different supermarket brands don’t change that. For any supermarket to stick their heads up is going to draw fire from the Commerce Commission, Consumers Institute etc and lead to a whole lot of publicity they don’t want as anything that reminds people about the limited competition is not good.

I might be entirely wrong, but the similarities are striking, and it will be interesting to see how it shapes up over the next twelve to eighteen months.

  1. I suspect that if any rebranding of NZ stores to Woolworths (Australia) occurs, it will coincide with the Australian logo relaunch in January 2009.

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