Feath­ers fly

Finweek English Edition - - NEWS - Bruce Whit­field brucew@fin­week.co.za

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.

Ian Moir

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