Cape Town entrepreneur Shannon McLaughlin developed her Ubuntu Baby Carrier four years ago and began selling the product online. She claims the high-end retailer, worth R57bn on the JSE, stole her idea.
She was alerted in December to the Woolworths website which featured a baby carrier that bore not only a striking resemblance to her design, but also came in a similar colour range and bore the same names McLaughlin had given her creations: “Stage 1” and “Stage 2”. Links to the product on the Woolworths site were not working on Tuesday evening, implying the retailer, which prides itself of high ethical standards through its “Good Business Journey” had suspended the sale of the items in question.
McLaughlin wrote to the company soon after making her discovery but was brushed off and told the matter would be investigated. When the deadline she’d given the company expired this week, McLaughlin who’d done some further online sleuthing in her own, went public with a detailed expose on her own website entitled: “Woolworths you have some explaining to do.”
This is not the first time Woolies has found itself in the firing line over its appropriation of entrepreneurial ideas. About seven years ago Balgowan-based businessman Mike Schmidt accused the company of hijacking his Frankies retro drinks brand with a range of again strikingly similar products. The company denied it had done anything wrong, but withdrew the line of drinks and has not sought to reproduce a similar line again.
It led to a public outcry at the time and a website called "Woolworse" was created. A Twitter account with the same name was last active in 2012.
Woolworths is lying low and on Tuesday invited McLaughlin to a meeting in Cape Town on Wednesday. It would not comment further on the allegations against it, saying only that the matter was under investigation.
McLaughlin’s own investigation revealed that two of her baby carriers had been bought via her online store and delivered to two women at Woolworths head office; one according to her searches on LinkedIn is a sourcing administrator and the second, a product developer at the company.
She doesn’t think so.
Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award winning financial journalist and broadcaster.
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