Fine Woolworths or get them to host a small business event? Fin24 readers weigh in

From calling on Woolworths to be fined for the 'striking similarities' with the Ubuntu Baba baby carrier to insisting that the retailer explain how 'unethical' practices took place, Fin24 readers had a lot to say. 

The resounding majority, however, want Woolworths to use Ubuntu Baba as a supplier of baby carriers.

This after Woolworths met with founder and designer of the Ubuntu Baba carriers Shannon McLaughlin on Wednesday, and admitted that there were indeed 'striking similarities' between her product and the one on their shelves.

The entrepreneur had earlier this week blogged about the retailer copying her baby carrier design.

Following the meeting, Woolworths issued a statement indicating that the investigation into allegations of copying had been completed. The retailer announced it would withdraw the product and that customers can return the baby carriers for a full refund.

McLaughlin in turn published a blog on Wednesday night, in which she acknowledged that Woolworths had apologised to her.

She added that a number of small businesses had reached out to her, as they similarly had issues with Woolworths. McLaughlin also said that she now has an opportunity to hold big corporations like Woolworths to their commitments in developing small and medium-sized enterprises. She will be having discussions with Woolworths about this, Fin24 reported.

In the meantime, Fin24 users have shared their views on the matter, and most feel that Woolworths simply withdrawing the product from stores is not enough.

Reader Jean Claude El-khouri wrote, "They should also be fined by the competition act or similar for unfair and not in good faith business standards ... to set a precedent for future wrong doings in the industry.

"Woolies should source the product directly from Ubuntu [Baba] and be forced to continue to sell that product in all Woolies stores now and in future."

Reader Otto Remke said that Woolworths should commit to a five-year contract with Ubuntu Baba and agree to the prices the small business sets while Don Bedggood took a different stance, saying Woolworths should not stock Ubuntu Baby products.

Develop small businesses

Thembelani Maphanga dished out practical steps for Woolworths – first to investigate the matter (Woolworths has said the investigation was concluded) and "charge" whoever copied the work of Ubuntu Baba.

Secondly, reimburse Ubuntu Baba in terms of the revenue it generated off baby carrier sales and then extend a contract to Ubuntu Baba as a supplier of baby carriers. 

"Improve its processes to ensure this never happens again," Maphanga said.

Rob Powell believes Woolworths should be fined "double the turnover on these products" as a warning to other corporates not to exploit local intellectual property, "irrespective of whether patents exist or not".

"Half of the fine [should go] to the inventor, the other half to a patent fund for aspiring inventors to file PCT patents to give them global protection for their first 12 months after completing product blueprints or business process designs," Powell proposed.

Powell also made broader recommendations, including that the retailer allocate 5% of its non-foods floor space to local small business manufactured goods. He also called for the corporate to sponsor and host a bi-annual inventor fair to identify "new local suppliers".

Woolworths should also sponsor and implement a cross-industry small to medium business body, to assist "local inventors" in protecting their products, he said. He pointed out that Woolworths should take this responsibility, as it is not the first time the retailer was found to be copying a product.

In 2012, it withdrew it's vintage softdrink range, following a complaint by a KwaZulu-Natal based company Frankies - which claimed it had copied its product line, Fin24 reported previously.

Ian Moir must do some explaining

Another reader, Sovash Hefele, wants CEO Ian Moir to explain how such "unethical behaviour" took place. "Apologising is not good enough. They must financially compensate the designers where appropriate."

Nick Steen also believes that Ubuntu Baba is entitled to some form of payment from Woolworths. "This payment needs to be made public". He added that Woolworths should pay the profits made from the sales to a charity. "All product removed should be given to children's hospitals and appropriate children's charities," he suggested.

Woolworths has said that it remains "deeply committed" to the development of local, small businesses.