Woolworths has sought to reassure locals in a trendy Sydney suburb who are outraged over a “stealth” move to convert their supermarket into a Metro version – insisting the only thing that’s changing is the signage and some of the products available.
The supermarket giant recently embarked on an aggressive expansion plan converting scores of existing stores into the smaller, sometimes more expensive “grab-and-go” Metro format, which has been met with mixed reviews from shoppers since first launching a decade ago.
As of mid-2022, 90 of Woolworths’ almost 1000 stores traded as Metros and that number has since increased. Last month it announced three new conversion plans – for Balmain and Alexandria in Sydney’s inner-west, and Buderim on the Sunshine Coast.
A Change.org petition started by an Alexandria resident calling on Woolworths not to “downgrade” their store has attracted nearly 1300 signatures from “angry” community members in two weeks.
“The residents demand better!” Andrew Wong wrote.
“We already have three Metros in the immediate area (Redfern, Erskineville, Park Sydney). We can see their higher prices and decreased selection. We see they have no seafood or meat counter. We want the existing Woolworths Alexandria supermarket to be maintained and improved, not downgraded to Metro!”
One local who signed the petition said, “I’ll go to Aldi if it’s downgraded. There are so many other options within driving distance. Not willing to settle for limited range and increased prices.”
Speaking to 2GB radio on Wednesday, Vanessa Knight, co-convener at Alexandria Residents’ Action Group, said the community had been “delighted” when Woolworths first opened the Fountain Street store “because we hadn’t had one before”.
“We’ve had a really great relationship with Woolies, lots of our people have been shopping there, doing their weekly shop, lots of people walk there,” she said.
“So to find out that by stealth they’re planning to make this a Metro store where we’ll have reduced product ranges … simple things like there wont be any greeting cards in the store. We’re likely to lose a lot of other things people rely on every week.”
Ms Knight said that Woolworths had already rebranded the receipts in the store as Metro.
“They’ve been talking about having community consultation – I’m sorry, I think they’ve got it the wrong way round,” she said. “Are they consulting us after they’ve done this? It seems to be a done deal.”
2GB host Chris O’Keefe said while it “might feel like first world problems” it was “pain in the backside” to be forced to shop at “effectively a trumped-up convenience store with a few other bells and whistles”.
“That’s exactly what it is,” Ms Knight said. “We need a supermarket. The supermarket has been terrific for our community … it’s just crazy.”
The group is holding a community meeting at the Alexandria Town Hall next Wednesday at 7pm and Ms Knight said she hoped many people would show up.
“We’ve invited [Woolworths chief executive] Brad Banducci or some of his senior representatives,” she said.
“We haven’t heard from them yet but we’ll still be having that meeting so Woolies can see how angry our community is over what’s happening. A lot of people are telling us they will not shop at Woolies again if this goes ahead. They’re going to be forced to go to Marrickville, Broadway or Zetland to do a weekly shop.”
A Woolworths spokesman told news.com.au on Thursday that representatives would attend the meeting and speak with community members to address their concerns.
He said there would be no change to the “size or footprint” of the store “and the standard shelf price customers are used to when shopping at Alexandria have not changed due to the conversion of it to a Metro neighbourhood store”.
“In our big full service supermarkets we can offer more of everything because we have the space,” he said.
“In some smaller supermarkets where we cannot easily expand the store Metro conversions allow us to tailor the local range by introducing new product lines that are based on what the local community wants. It means we can be thoughtful in what we stock, so for example, in Alexandria we have reduced the number of products in what’s called general merchandise, things like batteries, light globes and stationary where sales are lower. We’ll still stock them, just not as many varieties.”
Instead, Woolworths has “been then able to reuse this shelf space to put in more products that meet our customer needs, generally increasing the range in food”.
“An example in Alexandria is a significant increase in our Asian food range which has been requested by the local customer base,” he said.
“A big part of the Metro model is getting local input and this means our neighbourhood stores are partly ranged by the customers themselves. This is now live in Alexandria, where if customers see something they regularly buy is missing, they may scan the QR code in-store and share the details so it can be restocked. We have introduced more than 4000 products across our Metro stores as part of this ‘Picked by You’ program.”
Last month, Inner West Council Mayor Darcy Byrne raised concerns about the plans to downsize Balmain, given it is the only full-sized supermarket in the area and a similar Metro store is already located in nearby Rozelle.
“Any further reduction in a product range at a Woolworths Metro will have a further negative impact on the local Balmain/Rozelle local economy and local businesses,” he said on social media.
In Buderim, Woolworths admitted that it had already removed some products as it prepared to move to Metro as they “weren’t popular”.
One shopper told The Courier-Mail they would “definitely go elsewhere” if the new Woolies didn’t stock what he needed when it reopened.
The supermarket has previously sought to reassure shoppers about the Metro change, insisting the spruced-up stores will have a “range tailored to meet the needs of the community”.
Addressing pricing concerns, a Woolworths spokesman said last month the converted stores would continue to have the “same great Woolworths value” with specials and the Everyday Rewards program.
“We know customers are looking to balance their budgets more than ever before,” he said. “Metro Neighbourhood stores continue to have our seasonal Prices Dropped, Low prices program, all the catalogue specials and the same proportion of own brand products as well as a range of specials that are only available in Metros.”
However, prices can differ on some products between traditional and Metro Woolworths stores.
In March, a shopper noticed that an identical size and brand of coconut water was on sale for $3 at a standard Woolworths store in the inner-west while the price had been hiked to $4.50 at a Metro store just three minutes’ drive away.
Woolworths told Channel 9 the difference was due to one store being a “convenience” branch – in other words, a Metro.
— with Benedict Brook