Woolworths first became active in the petrol market in 1996, with a Woolworths Plus petrol station in Dubbo, New South Wales. However, supermarket involvement in petrol took a giant leap in 2003 with the introduction of fuel dockets. In this year, both Coles and Woolworths introduced the dockets for use at their tied fuel outlets.
In February 2003, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a headline reading: Soaring petrol prices fuel growth fears. Although petrol was cheap by today’s standards – around a dollar per litre – over the next few years prices climbed sharply. It was the perfect time for the big supermarkets to introduce a loyalty program based on fuel dockets. On presentation of the dockets motorists could save 4 cents a litre on petrol at tied Shell outlets (for Coles) and Caltex (for Woolworths).
The dockets were available for any shop exceeding $30. There were strategies employed by grey nomads where couples split the grocery shopping into two trollies, each person paying separately for their $30-plus load and thereby earning two fuel dockets.
By 2007 Woolworths and Coles controlled more than 60% of Australia’s petrol stations. An investigation by the ACCC concluded that the shopper docket program that offered discounts in return for grocery sales increased, rather than reduced, competition in the grocery industry and offered a consumer benefit.
However, in 2013, the ACCC took a different attitude after protests from other fuel retailers that Coles and Woolworths were subsidising the cheap fuel prices with profits from their other operations. In December of that year the two retailers gave an undertaking to the ACCC that they would voluntarily cease making fuel saving offers that were wholly or partially funded by any part of their business other than their fuel retailing business.
By 2018, though, fuel dockets were not as significant in driving people’s grocery shopping choices. Various reasons advanced for this include: the increasing tendency to do frequent small shops, often not reaching the $30 mark; the fact that full-price fuel at tied outlets was often more expensive, negating the discount; the Aldi factor, where groceries were cheaper to start with; and, perhaps, the fact that we had simply become accustomed to the higher price of petrol.