OPINION

  • Sexy Socks has accused Woolworths of stealing one of its designs.
  • The retailer may be completely innocent, but its track-record of 'product hijackings' is counting against it.
  • It's clear that Woolworths will have to do more to win back its hard-won reputation as an ethical business.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider SA.


Woolworths has found itself on the back foot yet again with another South African entrepreneur accusing it of copying their product. Woolworths has developed a reputation for helping itself to the intellectual property of others in a series of well-publicised product hijackings. Now, even the suggestion of impropriety leads to an outpouring of social media vitriol at the retailer’s expense.

The company has denied stealing sock entrepreneur Dave Hutchison’s Sexy Socks bicycle motif, ascribing similarities between its new product and one of the company’s classic designs as co-incidental and part of global trends. It has previously used this defence - only later to admit it was wrong, followed by an agreement with aggrieved parties.

Read: Sexy Socks owner claims Woolworths stole design - but the retailer is fighting back

That’s the trouble when you trash your own reputation.

People stop believing you, even if you are telling the truth.

Hutchison walked into a Woolworths store, prompted by calls of congratulations for getting his product onto Woolies’ shelves, and saw a design bearing a startling resemblance to one of his earlier designs staring back at him from the shelf.

“…I saw my socks. Only they weren’t my socks. It was just my design, altered ever so slightly, with a minor colour change. It was one of our original, iconic designs from the really early days, and one that was a top seller for years. These are even made from bamboo. And it was on sale at a price far below what I can afford to offer. That is what you can offer when you manufacture in China,” Hutchinson posted on social media.

To be fair to Woolies, the design is simplistic and replicable and could have been sourced from anywhere. But the fact that customers of Sexy Socks assumed that the product was one from the entrepreneurial stable is where the problem begins, especially since Woolworths has helped itself to other startups’ smart ideas in the past.

The Sexy Socks design came in white with a black bicycle design and there was one in reverse colours too. Woolies design is grey with a black bicycle. To the untrained eye, they could have come from the same factory.

Now it’s possible that Woolworths magically dreamt up a bicycle motif of its own. After all, they produce thousands of product lines and there will inevitably be some overlaps. Hutchinson is adamant that his IP has been breached. And, like others before him, he is taking the fight public.

Woolies' propensity for helping itself to the ideas of others first came into the public domain about six years ago, when following discussions between himself and Woolies buyers, Frankie’s Drinks founder Mike Schmidt saw replicas of his product line made by a contract producer appear on Woolies shelves. Then the company said it was following global trends and even though it denied copying his concept, it withdrew the line from its shelves.

Similar too was Ubuntu Baba, a baby carrier designed and sold by Cape Town businesswoman Shannon McLaughlin. In a spectacular takedown of the Woolworths mimicry machine, she detailed how two staff members had separately ordered product from her months before a startlingly similar product appeared on its shelves. Woolworths, while denying doing anything wrong, admitted there were similarities and withdrew its product.

The last time I spoke to CEO Ian Moir, butter would not have melted in his mouth.

“We have got good values, we have got good principles, we’re not a bunch of plagiarists, we are not a bad business, we’re ethically really responsible, sometimes we get it wrong, we produce hundreds of thousands of items, and sometimes you will have a member of staff and we have thousands of those, who does not adhere to your values, but if you think about it, we’d be a crazy business with our standing and how customers feel about us and what we stand for, to go out and copy because we are going to make a profit from an item and put our entire reputation at risk, we’d be mad. I don’t think we’re mad.”

Hutchinson acknowledges that there are differences between his socks and those on display at Woolworths, but says the similarities are striking.

“They have changed the design sufficiently to avoid any copyright accusations, but the resemblance is uncanny. So much so that I received a number of calls from people telling me they had seen Sexy Socks in Woolworths. So I went to see for myself,” Hutchinson said.

Sexy Socks is part of a broader global trend of often garish socks designed to liven up often boring corporate wear. With ties increasingly out of fashion, statement clothing items are few and far between. The sock trend has catered to a quest for individuality in often stifling dress code environments. With relatively low start-up costs, socks have proven to be a low barrier to entry point in the clothing sector.

“Small entrepreneurs are trying their best to build their businesses and create jobs and drive the economy and massive corporate giants watch closely to see what is working and then produce something very similar at a fraction of the price,” Hutchison says.

Even he admits there is a possibility that his design was not deliberately knocked off.

But he cannot be sure. And neither can you. And that’s the problem.

Once you’ve cheated once, you are always going to be second-guessed and Woolworths needs considerably more than mere platitudes to earn back its hard-won reputation as an ethical business if its customers are going to give it the benefit of the doubt in future.

 

Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award-winning financial journalist and broadcaster.

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