Are supermarkets deliberately trying to mislead shoppers by copying packaging?

Australian supermarket giants have been accused of deliberately trying to confuse shoppers with “copycat” packaging.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) says supermarkets are intentionally imitating well-known product packaging to make shoppers think they are buying the reputable and trustworthy brands.

In September, Mumbrella released a video showing the striking similarities between well-known food and drink products and Coles’ private-label counterparts.

The major supermarkets are under intense fire lately for dominating shelves with their own private-label products and squeezing Australian manufacturers out of the market.

One of Australia’s biggest manufacturers, HJ Heinz has slammed the dominance twice this year, saying the major supermarkets have created an “inhospitable” environment for Australian manufacturers and suppliers.

“This copycat strategy could be seen to be confusing consumers into believing they are buying top-selling branded products,” AFGC chief executive Kate Carnell said.

“Although the products may look similar, the taste and quality can be quite different between branded and private label products.”

The AFGC is calling for a Supermarket Ombudsman, to stay on top of product packaging becoming too similar to competitors.

Currently, the law allows companies to use similar colours and images as competitors, and the only cause for concern is “passing off” of trademarks.

“Within the Code, there could be a requirement for supermarkets not to directly copy packaging so there’s no confusion for customers,” Carnell said.

“Australians and our political leaders overwhelmingly want a local, value-adding food and grocery manufacturing sector – it’s Australia’s largest manufacturing industry that we can’t live without,” Carnell said.

“Consumers want to be confident about buying affordable, nutritious food and grocery brands that they know and trust.”

Private label products will account for 40 per cent of the market in the near future, and according to a report commissioned by the AFGC, 130 000 workers will be out of employment in the food and grocery sector is nothing is improved.

“The growth in private label is making it more and more difficult for Australian manufacturers to get their food and grocery products on supermarkets shelves.

“In the end, this means consumers will have less choice,” Carnell.

Food Magazine contacted both Coles and Woolworths this morning asking for comments on whether they are deliberately misleading consumers as well as squeezing other manufacturers out of the industry.

“We do not have a strategy to mimic the packaging of branded products,” a Woolworths spokesperson responded in a written statement.

“Our strategy is to differentiate Own Brand from the branded products.

“The main evidence for this is that many of our customers look specifically for Own Brand because it represents quality and value so we want them to be able to identify our products.

The supermarket giant did say it uses techniques to fit product packaging in with similar accepted products in each category.

“There are certain ‘cues’ that consumers respond to around the look and feel of products in particular categoriesm” the spokesperson said.

“These cues are used by suppliers and retailers around the world.

“Woolworths Own Brand products represent international best practice in packaging and we’re always looking at ways to lead in this area.

“In fact, there are plenty of examples where we have led the field in innovation such as putting handles on bulk dry dog food which has since been picked up by the branded products.

Coles had a similar response, responding with a statement to Food Magazine that it does not copy other manufacturers’ products, but rather, has its own design scheme.

“Coles has created its own distinct look and feel for its private label products, we do not follow or mimic anyone’s design," the spokesperson said.

"Our customers are in no doubt that they’re choosing a Coles brand product in our stores.

"Before we launch a new Coles product, we do extensive research to understand what customers want in the packaging and design.

"Sometimes this research shows that customers expect a product to have certain visual cues, such as coffee beans on the label of instant coffee, and we incorporate them into our product – as do branded manufacturers."

Coles also disputed claims from manufacturers and analysts that the increase in private-label products are negatively impacting Australian food manufacturers.

“Coles brand products are sometimes produced by the major branded manufacturer in a category, but typically they are produced by smaller manufacturers.

"In many cases, these smaller manufacturers have been able to dramatically grow their business, take on new employees and develop new product lines on the back of securing a Coles brand manufacturing contract.”