Spoiler alert: There’s no deception like Coles deception on freshness jingle

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There are times when you really wish that there was a truth in advertising law … and that it had some real bite.

For nearly two years now, Coles supermarkets have been in a pitched battle with Woolworths and other smaller rivals to secure greater market share and it has drawn a few rabbits out of its hat along the way.

Stores have been remodelled, multi-million-dollar sponsorship and placement deals inked and an endless stream of advertisements trotted out on television, one promising that Coles “never freeze” or “never thaw” their fruit and vegetables. What the?

About 18 months ago our local Coles received a “store upgrade”, to modernise its layout and introduce self-checkouts.

(Of course they kept trading during the two-plus months it took to reposition almost every grocery item and introduce a whole slew of unneeded super-cheap casual clothing from Bangladesh while reducing their range of useful stuff, but I digress.)

When our Coles began work on their fresh fruit and vegetable section, we were somewhat alarmed to see the arrival of large, ice-lined benches.

These set-ups were problematic 25 years ago when we lived in Victoria, because soft-celled vegetables – such as lettuce, celery, silverbeet, shallots, chinese vegetables, greens, tomatoes and other thin-skinned fruits – were inevitably ruined by exposure to ice on these benches, that is they would suffer partial freezer burn.

You’d get the produce home to find any pieces that had come into contact with the ice would already have to have a portion removed before being stored. Or else you would discover within a day or so that the produce would be ruined because its damaged cells would speed up spoilage.

We learned to avoid this produce at all costs and, eventually, the ice benches were removed in Victorian stores as more customers woke up to less than economical purchases.

The reason? Simple science, really.

These soft-celled vegetables and soft-skinned fruits contain a high proportion of water within their fragile cells and frozen water expands, splitting the tender cells, or outer the item’s surface, way earlier than they would break down under usual conditions.

And, because these fruits and vegetables have already been stressed, their shelf life is also diminished.

But it seems some bright spark at Coles has revived this crazy “revolution” as stores across the country are progressively renovated.

Here’s what the company said in a media release spruiking the revamp of its suburban Melbourne store at Taylor’s Hill in late 2011: “An extended fresh produce section will display fruit and vegetables on ice for maximum freshness.”

And, when it opened its new suburban Sydney store at Mount Annan in 2009, it made the promise: “Shoppers can look forward to a convenient and affordable shop in a market atmosphere, which includes a bakery, new style delicatessen, instore butchers, a specialty cheese case and an extensive fresh produce selection on ice.”

As disgruntled consumers, though, we’re not alone this time around and we’re spreading the word. On an online forum, LilacLizard wrote:

“My local Coles has just switched to these new ice bed shelves for storing soft refrigerated veggies & in the last couple of weeks since then all my food’s been rotting within days. Last night I bought 2 bunches of celery, thought I chose ones that were off the ice, but obviously they hadn’t been all day because I’ve just gone to get some out of the fridge to eat now & yet again one side of each bunch is completely rotted. I don’t get it! foods like celery, lettuce, etc., aren’t supposed to be frozen, so why are they storing it in a way that freezes half of it? How could they think this is an improvement to their stores?” and, later “The one I saw with the icicles wasn’t rotten as such, but it was around the base of the larger stems in the same area that’s been most effected & going brown & slimy a day or 2 later when I get it out of the fridge.”

On the same site, Electrotune1200 wrote:

“… it’s only the side that’s been in contact with the ice that’s rotted – same with both bunches & all I’ve bought since the new ice beds. I didn’t make the connection until the other day when a bunch I was holding was really cold & when I looked I saw the icicles in some of the stems & it was liquifying & going limp same way it does if you have the fridge turned on too cold & veggies half freeze.”

Behind the scenes, the reality must be that Coles has to buy in or make this chipped ice, top it up during the day as it melts away, dispose of the fouled run-off water that seeps from these free-standing benches and then toss out any damaged produce, at least those items that have sat directly on ice for hours at a time and show obvious signs of being the worse for it.

We approached our store manager when these ice-lined benches arrived early last year and aired our concerns. Clearly it made no difference as today those same sorts of vulnerable fruits and vegetables are arrayed over large, iced trays, ready for unsuspecting customers.

In our Coles store’s case, at least, the irony is they put the hard-celled vegetables such as pumpkins in normal refrigerated bays, when they have no need to do so. This sort of fresh produce doesn’t need refrigeration at all, but at least it would have a better chance of withstanding icy conditions than their soft-celled counterparts.

Having seen this practice elsewhere, I suspect what this store might think its gaining in presentation it is likely to be losing in trade as customers wake up to the ruse being perpetrated, leaving local independent fruit shops to flourish.

Perhaps Coles is counting on its customers buying more frequently because the produce doesn’t last as long. But they’d be wrong. Customers will be fooled once or twice, but then they’ll begin to connect the dots.

Sadly, since our local Coles was remodelled, pretty much every other one of their stores in our region has received the same treatment.

What the entire chain loses by exposing delicate fruit and vegetable produce to frost bite is credibility in its advertising and promotions. Because Coles not only freezes its vegetables, in Brisbane’s warm, sub-tropical climate it’s also a reality that those ice-affected items are thawed, sometimes even before they reach the checkout, let alone our cars or kitchens.

And, as more customers realise the wasteful value of such choices, they will, like us, take their business elsewhere, where fruit and vegetables are kept in more conducive conditions.

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Words: Trina McLellan

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