You do have to question why Woolworths finds itself in the firing line more often than any other domestic retailer when it comes to issues of copying original work. Two years after it was embroiled in a fiasco over whether or not it pirated the Frankies soft drink concept from Balgowan-based entrepreneur Mike Schmidt, the retailer is again publicly accused of lifting the idea – this time from a designer.
The accuser is Euodia Roets, an accomplished artist with an impressive social media footprint who has gone to ground since publishing a detailed blog alleging that she was ripped off after having presented a range of designs to Woolworths. The retailer retained copies of her work following a January meeting, only to later return the originals to her stating it was not interested in her designs. Months later, she says her concept is on the shelves: an image of a hummingbird in f light on a cushion. The image she presented and the one adorning the cushion are very different – Roets claimed however the concept was hers.
Not so, says Woolworths GM of Clothing and Merchandise Brett Kaplan. Its buyers scour the globe for trends and the hummingbird is one of those trends. This is where it gets complicated. Respected Cape Town designer Nicki Ellis maintains that while she has not actually presented her boutique concepts to the chain, she believes one of her ideas has been ripped off. She photographed tree branches on the family farm in Namibia – placed the images on cushion covers and has since noticed a range of very differently executed trees on soft furnishings at Woolworths.
Indeed Roets was obliged to update her own blog posting to concede the image she’d painted came from a 1996 photograph of a hummingbird in f light. Her refusal to agree to interviews on the matter means that her allegations remain unchallenged and despite repeated efforts by the retail giant to contact her, at the time of writing, she’d remained under cover. (Her version of the story can be found at https://www.facebook.com/toucheefeelee.)
CEO at branding consultancy Interbrand Sampson de Villiers, Doug de Villiers says that Woolies is more vulnerable to allegations of corporate thuggery because it bothers to engage local designers and has a solid pipeline of domestically sourced work. Some designers might be aggrieved at not being recognised.
The Frankies debacle has taught Woolies some important lessons. Not only i s it more responsive to public criticism – particularly when it comes to the potential wildf i res that can be generated through social media – but it’s become better at documentation and keeping track of its processes.
Woolies eventually discontinued its range of retro-style drinks, but it’s not backing down on its cushion covers. It has a paper trail it says vindicates its position. Kaplan says they signed off on the hummingbird pattern with their own suppliers in November 2012, and that based on the enormous volume of work which is presented to them daily – it is impossible for them to give feedback on every individual idea to every designer or concept originator who walks through their doors. While Roets may have had a hummingbird concept as part of her portfolio, it was only one of several designs that she submitted. The fact that Woolworths has developed its own hummingbird cushion cover is pure coincidence, he insists.
“We have a strict product development process all the way from research to launch. Our design signed off on 19 November, and suppliers were briefed in August. We met Euodia Roets in January, she showed us a host of designs, one of which was a hummingbird.”
This might be the first time you have heard about Euodia Roets. That would not have happened had she not made the allegation. Woolworths will not condemn her allegations as attention-seeking and CEO Ian Moir says that it will not preclude her from doing business with the chain in the future.