Woolworths surprised the nation last week when it confirmed it would no longer be selling Australia Day merchandise ahead of the public holiday.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton was quick off the mark to demand shoppers boycott the supermarket giant of its decision, which Woolworths says was made due to a “gradual decline” in sales.
While Woolworths is the latest retailer to shy away from Australia Day, QUT Professor Gary Mortimer says it won’t be the last.
“Over the past decade, Australians have come to understand January 26 evokes different emotions for many diverse communities,” the expert in consumer behaviour and psychology said.
“As a population matures, values shift, and it’s important for all businesses, not just retailers, to respond to those changes.”
Coles confirmed it would continue to stock a range of Australia-themed merchandise in the lead up to the day.
However, multiple stores appear to be selling only a small amount of the stock.
Customers have noted a lot of the “Australian-themed summer entertaining merchandise” is at the back of stores on small displays.
Some shoppers have even claimed they have struggled to find any Australia-themed products.
“My local Coles. Australia Day merch stand. 3 days. 3 photos. Nobody is buying it. And it is such a tiny stand,” one person wrote on social media.
“Coles had the end of one aisle with Australia Day stuff and it looked very sad and not moving sales at all,” wrote another.
“I was in Coles Pakenham today and also noticed no Australia Day products displayed. Is no one celebrating Australia Day this year? Is it really gonna end up being cancelled all together eventually? I’m not looking to debate just curious. Pretty sad though,” wrote another.
Another customer who went in search for Australia Day merchandise was stunned to find the Lunar New Year display was far more prominent.
“I went into Coles to check out the Australia Day merchandise. And yeah, they had some – shoved at the back of the supermarket, may I add.
“But it was there, at least.
“I walked around the corner and this! Lunar New Year – triple the real estate, pride of place.
“I obviously have no issue with Lunar New Year, I think it’s fantastic. It should be celebrated.
“But this display was on crack compared to the Australia Day display.
“I couldn’t believe the difference.”
When approached by NCA NewsWire about the Australia Day stock, a Coles spokesperson said: “We are stocking a small range of Australian-themed summer entertaining merchandise throughout January which is popular with our customers for sporting events such as the cricket and tennis, as well as for summer entertaining.”
Prof Mortimer said he suspected it would not be long until Coles and others eventually followed Woolworths.
“Kmart didn’t promote Australia Day products last year. This year Woolworths, Big W and Aldi have followed suit. Sometimes it takes a while to gather the momentum to respond to shifting values,” Prof Mortimer said.
The debate about Australia Day and celebrating it on January 26, the day in 1788 when the British Flag was first raised at Sydney Cove after the arrival of the First Fleet, has been growing over the past decades.
Many First Australians view and refer to the date as “Invasion Day” and as a day of mourning.
But developments in recent years have seen that view fall into the mainstream.
In 2017, Triple J announced it would no longer hold the Hottest 100 on January 26.
Federal public servants are no longer forced to take Australia Day off, and other large companies have since followed, opting to allow employees to take the leave at another time.
Meanwhile the number of local councils that choose not to hold citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day has grown.
“While there was initial backlash, today, I sense more and more Australians are opting to move away from celebrating on the 26th,” Prof Mortimer said.
Research conducted by YouGov in the week after Mr Dutton’s boycott demand showed half of Australians would like to change the way our national holiday is celebrated.
Around 30 per cent of voters said they were open to the idea of a two-day public holiday that celebrated the old and the new, while one in five said the date should change.
Just 49 per cent of respondents said they wanted Australia Day to stay as it is.
Director of Government at YouGov, Paul Smith, said overall the research showed Australians had a relatively “laid-back approach” to our national day.
“More Australians, at 41 per cent, nominate ‘being able to enjoy the day off how they choose’ as the most important thing about Australia Day,” he said.
“This is compared to 31 per cent who say ‘celebrating at Australia Day specific events’ is the most crucial part of the day.”
When Mr Dutton first made his plea to shoppers to avoid Woolworths he singled out chief executive Brad Banducci, who was also a supporter of the Voice to Parliament.
The Opposition Leader attacked the supermarket boss for wading in on social issues and signing up to Anthony Albanese’s “woke agenda”.
Since then a number of Woolworths stores have been targeted by vandals.
Agriculture Minister Murray Watt said the remarks demonstrated a lack of leadership and slammed him for not apologising to workers and residents affected by the attacks.
“If he was any type of leader … he’d front up and apologise to the workers and residents he has put at risk through his silly and dangerous words,” the Labor frontbencher said.
“(Mr) Dutton is focused on a culture war, we’re focused on the war on inflation”.
On Friday, Mr Dutton said he wouldn’t personally be picking up Australian themed thongs from Coles but maintained Woolworths should still be selling the products.
Managing director of Wesfarmers’ Kmart Group Ian Bailey told news.com.au the number of shoppers seeking out themed bunting, clothes and other merchandise was “less than it used to be”.
“There’s not enough demand in that one day to justify bringing products back,” he said.
Prof Mortimer said the decision was “simply an example of retailers responding to changing community attitudes” rather than going “woke”.
The retail sector in Australia is worth $420bn and employs more than 1.4m Australians.
“It’s that size and reach that places the sector in a position to bring about change,” the consumer behaviour expert said.