In the face of public embarrassment, Woolworths has withdraw from sale a lookalike product a Cape Town entrepreneur says it stole from her, then started to manufacture in China.
Woolworths says it apologised sincerely to Shannon McLaughlin and is deeply committed to the development of small businesses in South Africa.
McLaughlin detailed the apparent intellectual property theft online this week, leading to a hastily-arranged meeting on Wednesday with senior Woolworths executives.
Woolworths says it has withdrawn it baby carriers from sale and has apologised unreservedly for what it describes as a “failure of internal processes.”
McLaughlin was alerted to the lookalike product in mid-December, but initially received no response from Woolworths when she reached out to the company.
“While there are differences in our baby carrier, there are striking similarities which we acknowledge and take responsibility for. This is not in line with our values and goes against the very clear policy and creative guidelines we have in place for our design process,” the retailer said in a statement.
Two women working for the Woolworths division that develops new ideas for the group apparently ordered McLaughlin’s baby carriers and had them delivered to the group head office. They appear to have operated as if it was perfectly normal to acquire promising ideas from South African manufacturers, make a few modest changes, and then create their own line to be manufactured offshore.
This is not an isolated incident involving the retailer. It also emerged this week that Woolworths engaged international experts six years ago in the aftermath of the furore around its appropriation of the style and ethos of the Frankies retro drinks brand to prevent this sort of incident happening again.
Yet later Woolworths was accused of stealing a private designer’s hummingbird design for a scatter cushion.
The baby carrier incident makes for a third allegation that the company steals intellectual property.
“This lapse in process is being addressed internally. We are intensifying and strengthening the training of our people, our suppliers and our partners on our values-based approach to the design and sourcing process,” Woolworths said.