Picture: IM
Picture: IM

High-end clothing and food retailer Woolworths, the country’s fourth largest retailer by market capitalisation, was forced into making an embarrassing apology when it "acknowledged" there were "striking similarities" between its baby carrier and one made by a local business.

The issue came to light when Shannon McLaughlin, the founder of Ubuntu Baba, wrote a blog about how there was a remarkable resemblance with her baby carriers, and those sold by Woolies, sparking a social media outcry.

After conducting an internal investigation and meeting McLaughlin on Wednesday, the retailer admitted it had made mistakes and said it would remove the carrier from its stores and website.

It also offered a full refund to customers who would like to return the product. "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.

"This lapse in process is being addressed internally," the group said in a statement.

"We have sincerely apologised to Shannon personally and we would like to offer our heartfelt apologies to our customers who expect more from us."

This is not the first time that a copyright incident involving a small business in recent years forced a U-turn by Woolworths.

Cold-drink maker Frankie’s Olde Soft Drinks won an advertising complaint against Woolies in 2012, when the Advertising Standards Authority of SA ruled that the retailer could not use the phrase "good old fashioned" to market its in-house version of a vintage-style cold drink.

At the time, the KwaZulu-Natal-based Frankie’s said the use of the phrase implied that it was a Woolies product bottled by Frankie’s.

McLaughlin wrote on her blog that there was more than a passing resemblance to Ubuntu Baba’s carriers and those sold
by Woolies.

There was little difference in the waistband, which had taken her and her father weeks to get right, and even the branding of the carriers [Stage 1 and Stage 2] were the same, she said.

She also said that her company records showed Ubuntu Baba had sold and delivered two of her carriers to people working in product sourcing and development at Woolworths’s Cape Town office in 2017.

Ubuntu Baba employs about 10 people at its facility in Cape Town, and sold its products through a handful of stores and agents throughout the country.

Retail prices start at R1,390 on the company’s website. Woolies sourced its carriers from China and sold them at a fraction of the price.

"This lapse in process is being addressed internally. We are intensifying and strengthening the training of  our people, our suppliers  and partners on our values-based approach to the design and sourcing process," Woolworths said.

claasenl@businesslive.co.za