Over at Kiwiblog David Farrar has had a crack at TV3 for the work done by the team at The Nation on the supermarket story. I lead that team and on several points Farrar is plain wrong and on other points is misleading. So here's my reply

Hi David and Kiwiblog readers,

I've had the post titled Has it turned to just mindless bashing of Countdown? pointed out to me, so in reply I wanted to alert you to a few missing facts.

It seems you either missed The Nation, haven't read the transcripts (here and here) or are being purposefully mischievous. So I'd ask you to check your facts before you criticise TV3; or don't post from Nepal. Especially when you position the piece as a chance to set the record straight and are criticising what has been days of thorough work by The Nation team.

Your argument is that yesterday the previously reasonable criticism of Progressive Enterprises "turned into almost a smear campaign against Countdown. They were accused on TV3 of everything from threatening a select committee, to bullying competitors also, to bullying Councils to shock horror selling Lotto tickets.  I think a line has been crossed, and we are now just seeing a degree of mindless bashing".

The programme on TV3 in question is The Nation. As most Pundit readers will know, I'm Executive Producer of The Nation. You have every right to defend Countdown and its owners Progressive Enterprises. But not to malign the work of others raising important questions worthy of public debate.

On the programme Mad Butcher CEO Michael Morton criticised various parts of Countdown's behaviour, including the lawyers' letters he's been getting since he started doing comparative advertising. As you rightly point out, David, the Advertising Standards Authority have upheld complaints by Progressive against the Mad Butcher. You criticised a later TV3 news story for not including that fact, yet you didn't mention the fact that Progressive has been criticised by the ASA as well. As The Nation host Lisa Owen asked of Morton on the programme, 'aren't you as bad as each other?'.

Indeed Morton was challenged a couple of times about his advertising complaints and was forced to admit that Progressive had complained to the ASA about his ads and won the fight. Morton said it was for technical, minor reasons and his argument is that a large company can use lawyers and complaints processes to suck up the time and resources of a smaller competitor. But viewers were left in no doubt about the ASA complaints and their outcomes. There was no "key fact missing" from The Nation or the video at the top of the story you link to. Did you bother to watch that?

Second, you seem to miss the crucial point of the Lotto allegations made by Labour MP Shane Jones. You wrote:

"Then the next bash was shock horror they sell Lotto tickets: ... That’s just pathetic. I’ve been buying lotto tickets at New World for over a decade.  Why is it fine at one group of supermarkets, but not another? This is just smearing Countdown."

Countdown sells Lotto tickets at the tills. Your New World does not do that. As reported on The Nation, Countdown trialled the scheme over summer, it was popular and is now being rolled out to Countdown supermarkets nationwide (currently over 100 have it). That's new this year and exclusive to Countdown for now, so it's not a matter of it being "fine at one group of supermarkets, but not another" or "xenophobic". You can certainly argue that it's a fine and helpful service for Countdown to offer, but the argument you're making is based on wrong facts. Jones is right when he makes the distinction between what Countdown does compared to other supermarkets; you can make your own mind up as to whether you think that makes Countdown more convenient or harmful.

You may say large Jackpots are fine and fun, as is selling Lotto at the till. But the Mad Butcher said sales of food – food – at his stores falls by 8-9 percent on Jackpot weeks and by up to 15 percent on Jackpot days. Other retailers tell of similar trends and budgeting agencies tell of an increased demand for foodbank parcles in the days after a Jackpot weekend.

Desperate people make bad choices, it seems. Is that purely their responsibility or are Lotto and Countdown also culpable. Remember, Countdown says it's a caring member of the communities it works in and is one of New Zealand's largest employers. It's a good issue to debate, isn't it? Something a caring society should be thinking about? Why would you mock even the debate and call it a "smear campaign"?

Third, I'm curious how you know about the contents of the letter. No-one on the select committee would release it to us or even confirm its contents; doing so would have broken privilege. So I can only assume that either an MP has leaked it to you at risk of a privileges committee hearing or that you've been briefed by Countdown on this. Isn't that something you should declare openly?

Fourth, you have every right to support Countdown in the hours it wants to sell alcohol. But that's not the point of Yule's criticism – or that of two others mayors The Nation spoke to. The purpose of the bill National passed last year was that local communities should have the final word on what hours alcohol can be sold in their community. Judith Collin could explain that to you. Countdown, as is their legal right, is challenging that. Fair enough. But the mayors' complaint is that Progressive has been particularly aggressive in its approach – more so than any other appellant. The Hauraki mayor is on the record as being especially furious on this point. Countdown deny that, but it's a perfectly legitmate claim from three independent sources.

You claim that: "All you do by restricting beer and wine sales to 9pm is annoy a lot of late night shoppers who can’t buy a bottle of wine with their groceries". That's a disputable claim, if not plain wrong. It's not "all" you do. There's evidence from both here and overseas that a restriction of alcohol sales by just two hours does reduce the social harm caused by excessive drinking. But whether you accept that evidence or not, you're missing the point. The new law is clear: it's simply up to local communities to set whatever hours they want on alcohol sales; there's no requirement for evidence, just for public consultation. And the mayors will tell you that most submitters want reduced hours. You can argue that it's a bad move and they're wrong, but that's just your opinion, not a sign of anyone smearing Countdown.

You say "Many Councils are falling into the trap of not distinguishing between specialist bottle stores and supermarkets", but again the law simply requires councils to listen to the local will. If you think that's bad law, raise it with the National government that passed it.

Finally, you "acknowledge that Countdown’s alleged behaviour towards suppliers appears to have been bad", but you don't mention that the most significant part of Morton's claims were over treatment of suppliers and the fact he has become the first person to confirm he has taken part in a complaint to the Commerce Commission on just that issue.

Oh, and one other thing. Progressive was informed of the nature of the complaints against it and repeatedly offered right of reply on the programme. Executives were free to make all the arguments you do and more, yet they repeatedly rejected the offer to appear. Why didn't you mention that in your post?

You have every right to think that the complaints by Jones, Morton and Yule are just "whining". But when several independent sources all make complaints of a similar nature about one corporate's behaviour, especially a company that is currently being investigated by the Commerce Commission for anti-competitive behaviour, I'd say that's worth a public airing and debate.

Even though Countdown bosses didn't appear, The Nation laid out their response to the allegations at length, both in the questions asked and a separate graphic containing bullet points of their arguements to provide what balance we could. I'm assuming you wouldn't argue that a current affairs show shouldn't ignore serious claims just because the side complained about refuses to take part in any debate or even give an interview.

So please, feel free to argue the content of the criticisms, but it's unreasonable and unfair to go round accusing people of a "smear campaign" based on inaccurate claims and errors of fact. Right?


Tim Watkin

Comments (14)

by Siena Denton on April 06, 2014
Siena Denton

Kiaora Tim

I had half expected to see the response to your 'Open letter' from granpa munster.

Maybe he was one of those 127 who viewed your letter but didn't reply.

I've only shopped at Countdown once this year and I'm usually a New World shopper and I still am.

I've seen the Lotto outlet located within Countdown Upper Hutt as one walked out with one's trolley or basket, obviously Progressive Enterprise found that shoppers weren't buying Lotto or Scratchies because shoppers had already spent their money on their groceries.

So, I would hazard a guess that it is a strategic move on Progressive's part to sell ..."Lotto tickets at the tills". Kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

It will be very interesting to see what eventuates and what the Commerce Commission will do.

by Siena Denton on April 06, 2014
Siena Denton

I do sincerely apologise Tim, 212 views and 1 comment.


by Tim Watkin on April 06, 2014
Tim Watkin

Thanks Siena. I'm not passing judgement on Countdown; it's an interesting debate either way. On one hand you can say that it's simply saving customers 20 steps and a second queue. On the other you can say it's like putting a pokie at the checkout, yet at a casino pokie you're not allowed to gamble with credit like you can at the till. Like so many things, it's a fine service if used responsibly, but is undoubtedly open to temptation and misuse.

Either way, it's got to worry all of us that food sales are down on jackpot weekends, doesn't it? And really, who needs to win $33million? And are we OK with going to $100 or more as s happened overseas?

I'm not opposed to some kind of cap – it works in sport to contain unhealthy and self-destructive behaviour – as there's no pre-determined perfect rate. And for the free-marketers out there, there's no free-market to set the rate either. It's a closed monopoly.

by Dave Guerin on April 07, 2014
Dave Guerin

Tim, I just saw a writer at The Standard  made a big deal about David Farrar getting a copy of a letter from the commerce select committee, as you suggested above. But if you read Farrar's original post, he just paraphrases the story at the link he gave, which was a TV3 story from The Nation.

The TV3 story says: "We have asked the select committee for a record of what was said at their recent meeting because it affects our business," Countdown communications manager Kate Porter told NZ Newswire.

David Farrar said: The so called threatening letter merely asks for a transcript of the last hearing – which is a routine request.

Looks to me like Farrar was just quoting from your own show's story.


by Ross on April 07, 2014

Countdown sells Lotto tickets at the tills. Your New World does not do that.

That's a pretty fine distinction, Tim. Let's face facts - it's bloody easy to buy a lotto ticket, whether you do it at New World, Countdown, a pharmacy or dairy.

by Ian MacKay on April 07, 2014
Ian MacKay

Ross you do realise that Countdown are now selling Lotto tickets to you when you front at the check-out counter to pay for your groceries. As apart from the Lotto counter. I think there was a figure around somewhere that Lotto sales increase by 7-11% by selling at the check-out. I read that a week or so when Countdown first reported the change.

Make that what you will.

by Tim Watkin on April 07, 2014
Tim Watkin

Well spotted, Dave. That quote from Countdown came via NZ Newswire, which had obviously very promptly rung the company about the claim. We hadn't seen the letter and so didn't know its contents. If Countdown told NZ Newswire about the contents as it seems, then yes Farrar could have got it from that. Jones clearly thinks its contents are stronger than that, so I would reserve judgement until I've seen it or had other sources.

Having said that it's a third possibility I wasn't aware of, so fair dues, I may have been barking up the wrong tree.

by Tim Watkin on April 07, 2014
Tim Watkin

Ross, it's not me making the distinction but Jones. Farrar called the fact we even covered the allegation – amongst others – a smear campaign. I reject that. Whether you think it a fine distinction or not, a senior MP was raising it as a serious concern and arguing a law should be changed as a result. That's called news.

But as Ian says, sales have gone up at stores selling at the checkout by 8 percent. It's not being rolled out around the country because it's a money loser, so it's surely a debate worth having isn't it? The distinction is at least 8 percent and raises the question – how easy should it be to be able to gamble on credit?

by Fentex on April 08, 2014

Either way, it's got to worry all of us that food sales are down on jackpot weekends, doesn't it?

Would this be the same us that are routinely exhorted to be concerned about over-weight people? It's just a correlation, don't build an argument on it.

by Fentex on April 08, 2014

...you do realise that Countdown are now selling Lotto tickets to you when you front at the check-out counter to pay for your groceries

I don't recall Countdown selling me anything I didn't also buy. This passive construction that suggests being sold to is something that happens to a person without their participation seems to presume a need for consumers to be protected from an inability to budget.

Would those vouching such an attitude welcome governmnet over-sight of peoples purchases? As a principle it seems to suggest a logical path to issuing of food stamps to beneficiaries.

sales have gone up at stores selling at the checkout by 8 percent

By implication a bad thing, otherwise why mention it in context. And I suspect people may rush to condemn and demand it cease. But here's an idea - Lotto is controlled by the state. If we want it to have a less deletorious effect on people we conclude are incapable of resisting it's charms it's easy for the state to resolve the matter - change the game to increasse the odds of some small payback.

If peope need protection from their innumeracy reduce the pain of being silly.

by william blake on April 08, 2014
william blake

Hey Fentax here's an idea, since we are all so stoic how about just making the lottery just a part of your purchase, perhaps at every store you choose to buy from, and have a complicated opt out. Then we would all be in the game.


by Fentex on April 09, 2014

I cannot parse that paragraph to make much sense of it. It seems to say something about compelling people to buy Lotto unless they perfrom a complex opt-out?

Did you mean, believing my comment was uncharitable to people preyed upon, that I (and everyone else) should be trapped into spending on gambling unless we work hard against it so we would presumably know something you think a lack of empathy disguises to some?

If so then you seem to have missed the point of my suggesting making Lotto payoff more often as mitigation, if we were to accept a need, of harm done to compulsive gamblers. 

Sure, an obvious retort to that is it will probably bait just as strong a trap for people who cannot be satisified by a few small wins, but there's no way to perfect protecting people from the temptations of gambling and their personal follies.

Outlaw it and you get all the ills of clandestine bookies and furtive activities making any agencies hope of intervening harder. Trying to legislate sellers good behaviour is a bit of wishful thinking when having control of the mechanism of the bet gives government a more direct lever to pull, don't you think?

I could be wrong, experience may prove the idea of making Lotto payoff more often does not ultimately reduce the losses to problem gamblers and tougher regulation (such as banning all but one purpose built Point Of Sale to an outlet) is more  effective, but I'd hope swimming with peoples pleasures would work out best.

by Ross on April 09, 2014

how easy should it be to be able to gamble on credit?

Yes it's a valid question but punters have been able to gamble on credit for donkeys years. It seems a little cute to raise the question now.

Personally, I'd prefer to buy a Lotto ticket with my grocieries if I was that way inclined. Why queue for some length of time to buy gorceries and then repeat the process to buy a Lotto ticket?

by Ross on April 09, 2014

Ross you do realise that Countdown are now selling Lotto tickets to you when you front at the check-out counter to pay for your groceries.

My local Countdown doesn't have that facility.

By the way, you might have noticed that for many years choloclate bars have been situated close to the checkout. Civilisation as we know it has survived this awful temptation.

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