A FURIOUS mum has snapped photos of Woolworths customers filling up an entire trolley full of baby formula in full view of the supermarket's service desk, blatantly flouting a new two-can limit.
Posting to the supermarket's Facebook page on Sunday, Brisbane mum Clara Warry-Bush said she saw "at least six people" loading up on baby formula at the Sunnybank Hills store with a "large amounts of cash changing hands".
"This doesn't include the two car loads we saw being loaded in the carpark on our way in," she wrote. "I approached the service desk and was told they can't stop them as it is two per customer per transaction so they can come in and out as many times as they want.
"This is disgusting. Your staff have the right to refuse service. They were sitting outside the service desk in plain sight. No wonder we have a hard time purchasing formula when you are doing nothing to stop this abuse of the system."
In response, a Woolworths customer service representative wrote, "We introduced a two-can limit per shop on the purchase of baby formula by customers from our supermarkets nationwide and online.
"We understand how frustrating it is for our customers when they can't buy the products they need and we'll continue to work hard with our suppliers to increase supply of these products, as well as look at new ways to ensure guaranteed stock for families. We've passed your feedback on to the store management team for their awareness."
Videos and photos of customers stripping shelves of baby formula have flooded social media over the past two years, with debate raging over the "grey market" trade.
In October, customers were filmed stuffing cans into their baskets straight from a loading pallet at a Coles in Melbourne. The previous month, a Brisbane shopper filmed a group of women running into a Coles to grab fresh stock, while in August another Brisbane mum snapped photos of groups of up to eight people stripping shelves.
There are an estimated 80,000 Chinese personal shoppers known as "daigou" in Australia, some of whom can make up to $100,000 a year buying up vitamins, formula and other products and reselling them on social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo, and through Alibaba's online shopping sites Tmall Global and Taobao.
Purchase limits introduced by supermarkets and chemists to appease angry mums - who have complained of shelf shortages since at least 2015 - are easily circumvented. And even so, the diagou aren't breaking any laws.
Chinese demand for Australian products shows no signs of abating despite predictions that moves by brands including A2 and Bellamy's to sell direct into China would kill off the industry, which has also led to the launch of a dedicated "daigou" retailer.
Ben Sun, director of marketing consultancy Think China, said the current price in China for a tin of formula was between $40 to $50, compared with $20 to $23 in Australia. "It's around 70 to 100 per cent mark-up," he said.
"These kinds of daigou, people who go to Coles, Woolworths or Chemist Warehouse to get the stock, we call them grassroots daigou," he said. "They are unable to directly get stock from brands or distributor.
"If you think about it, with the two-can limit, if they do that 20 times it's only 40 cans. It is usually a part-time or side business they're doing. As a part-time job, [they would be earning] roughly $20,000 to $30,000 a year. Someone earning over $100,000 is probably not someone that goes to Coles and Woolworths to clear shelves."
Mr Sun said the grassroots diagou would "always be there". "The two-can limit seems to be the best we can do," he said. "You can't really stop people buying from retail shops, and you can't judge people by their race or the language they speak."
He added that the increased demand was ultimately a positive thing as it created more jobs and business opportunities, "as long as we can manage the inventory to make sure Australian mums are being well looked after".
A Woolworths spokesman said, "At Woolworths, we understand the frustration that our customers can feel when they can't get the products they need. We continue to work hard with suppliers to increase supply of these products, as well as looking at new ways to ensure guaranteed stock for families."
A Coles spokeswoman said, "Coles is committed to ensuring our customers have access to infant formula, so we are constantly monitoring supply and demand to adjust limits accordingly. We are currently limiting sales quantities to two units per customers and working with our suppliers on solutions to improve availability."
Ms Warry-Bush has been contacted for comment.
On Facebook, users were split. "Something seriously had to be done about this!" wrote Toni Saul. But Julie Thomson said staff did not have the right to refuse service as "technically the customer is doing nothing wrong".
"Yes it's not the ideal situation and yes it should be handled differently but businesses need to be extremely careful due to discrimination laws," she said.
Ms Warry-Bush said it was "not discrimination when you watch people clearly take advantage of a situation". "I am not vilifying them because of their race," she said. "I am disgusted by their actions. I am drawing it to the attention of Woolworths so that appropriate action can be taken to stop this."
Gregory Reid said the photos shouldn't have been shared on social media. "Sure, it's an awful situation and I totally agree it shouldn't be going on but you are also in the wrong here," he wrote. "If anyone tried to take my picture whilst shopping I'd smash their camera."
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