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PacificEdge | January 22, 2019

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Organic milk: how shopping became a dilemma

Organic milk: how shopping became a dilemma
Russ Grayson

YESTERDAY, I went to the nearby shopping centre and encountered a dilemma. It is a dilemma about markets and the types of retailers you prefer to spend your money with.

The dilemma is this: If you want organic milk from this shopping centre then you have to buy it from one of the ‘Colesworth’ stores (as fair food advocates refer to the Coles/Woolworths duopoly that controls 80 percent or so of Australia’s grocery market). You cannot get it from the smaller grocery and fresh food store close to Woolworths in the shopping centre.

Woolworths sells full cream and reduced fat, branded organic milk (not house brand, that is). So does Coles down the road. The independent grocer close to Woolworths used to too, but they sold their business to Harris Farm. Harris is a smaller grocery chain and, in the store in this shopping centre anyway, does not stock organic milk.

In this lies the dilemma. Some prefer to avoid the supermarkets on account of their bad corporate behaviour and their $1/litre milk presently a focus in Australia’s dairying industry crisis. They would prefer to buy from a smaller corporate chain like Harris Farm. But it they prefer organic milk, then they cannot and must buy it from the supermarket. Once there, there’s the temptation to do the rest of their shopping in the supermarket too.

The small organic retailer

There is an organic food retailer further down the road. It is a small store and it has been there for quite some time. That suggests it has a regular clientele though I suspect many shoppers visiting the commercial strip would not know of its existence.

The streetfront windows are covered with a confusion of posters and signs sufficient to largely block the view inside. It’s a store crammed with stock and it is dim and dingy. Appearance-wise it is not very inviting. There’s a limited offering of fresh veges and fruit and the rest of the stock is mainly packaged food. You could buy organic milk here and presumably many do, but to do so would take shoppers away from the main part of the shopping centre for a walk down the road, and I think many would be reluctant to do that. We’ll get to the idea of proximity in a bit.

The arcade/mini-mall shopping centre that Woolworths and Harris Farm are located in, along with a diversity of small businesses and cafes, is the central place on this streetside shopping strip. It is the only place on this long shopping street that many shoppers would visit.

This demonstrates a number of things about food retailing:

  • the value of a one-stop shopping experience — this came in a comment I read recently about the milk wars — that to buy ‘good food’ you had to go to multiple retailers and doing that was a disincentive; buying from the small organic store as well as Harris Farm, Coles or Woolworths would count as visiting multiple retailers
  • the value of proximity or clustering — clustering is a phenomenon where businesses selling similar products group within relatively close proximity of each other; in Sydney CBD we see this with adventure sports equipment retailers that are situated in a one and a half city block length on Kent Street; the IT industry did the same out Ryde way; with Woolworths, Harris Farm, a delicatessen, a bakery and spice shop located in the same mini-mall, their proximity makes it easy for people to buy from all without setting foot out on the street to walk to another retailer
  • the value and drawback of fractionalising the market for food — the existence of the small organic retailer demonstrates how organics developed as a niche food market; it promoted itself as different to mainstream food and this contributed to the development of its niche and set up its own more or less separate market; thus many who frequent the supermarkets see organics as something that is not relevant to them; this is not just based on price differential, and that certainly exists, it is also based on perception about the type of food one eats.

Defining its own market is not necessarily a bad thing for an industry like organics so long as those doing it recognise that in positioning foods as different they will exclude a great many people just as they will attract many. We end up with a dual food system — organic/non-organic | good food/mass market food | small, specialist retailers/supermarkets. Maybe fragmentation like this is inevitable when, as it has done since the dawn of organics as a mainstream food industry, marketers position a type of food and those that eat it as desirably different to others.

A solution?

We don’t usually buy milk from supermarkets or from bricks and mortar shops at all. Yes, we buy organic milk but we do that via the internet. A few clicks in the evening and Doorstep Organics drops it right at our door, with the rest of the order, next day.

Internet shopping has one disadvantage though. It removes your ritual of sitting and enjoying a cup of steaming, extra-hot cappuccino, your pack of shopping on the floor next to you, while you sit and watch life go buy there on that long shopping strip streetfront.


Harris Farm now stock organic milk, however there is no low-fat varant. If you want that product then the only option remains Woolworths.


Related stories:

The Milk Wars — it is not only farmers who are hurting

New Coalition to Press for Better Food System

The Community Food Movement: Seven Big Challenges

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