COLES has been forced to back-pedal on its "I'm Free" slogan after young female staff reported being sexually harassed by customers.
News.com.au has been told staff were told to stop using the paddles yesterday after a number of complaints about older male customers making suggestive remarks.
The slogan, introduced to highlight Coles opening extra check-outs over the Easter period, had been billed as a new advertising platform for the supermarket, with chief customer officer Simon McDowell telling news.com.au earlier this week that it seemed "to be really capturing the imagination of our team members and our customers too".
"A lot staff are getting smut talk from customers [as in], 'Are you free? Let's go together'," one employee told news.com.au. "Some of these staff members are young, too."
Another reader, whose partner works at Coles, said staff had been told yesterday lunchtime to stop holding up the signs. "I'm assuming that more young women were sexually harassed in Coles stores as [my partner] was," he said.
"Like being asked by old men to come home with them since they are 'free', or middle-aged women saying that they should have more respect for themselves," he said. "Coles gave no explanation, just told [them] not to use the signs any more."
Some customers and parents took to Coles' Facebook page to complain. "Worst ad campaign ever!" wrote Kylie McKenzie. "Thank goodness my daughter's store was having a visit from the area manager this morning and those dumb campaign signs were taken off the girls on the registers.
"The number of lewd and suggestive comments made to the female service staff in the short time they had the signs in their hands, by mostly male customers including but not limited to, 'You're free? When can I take you home?' was absolutely disgusting.
"Some may argue that the customers were being cute or funny or conversational, but think about grown men saying such things to your 16-, 17- or 18-year-old child, school-aged child, while in her workplace. A place she should feel safe. And it wasn't only the young ones copping the comments.
"Cheers to the area manager visiting in-store and the service manager who had the sense to see the stupidity of the campaign and protected the staff from further verbal sexual abuse and stuck up for their staff by removing the signs when the advertising executives didn't have the foresight to can the idea before it went to print."
She said the idea of every register being open at peak time was "great" but there needed to be some foresight for the "protection of staff on the ground".
"Maybe it's time to overhaul the advertising think tank crew, clearly they have been holed up in their offices way too long and have lost touch with real world and how uncouth people in the real world can be," she wrote.
Lisa Bullen pointed out that the "suggestive notion" was actually made in the commercial "by one of the female staff to a male customer".
"I work on the check-outs and OMG!" wrote Emily Henderson. "The comments have been horrible! We have also removed all signs. We have had it from BOTH male and female, old and young."
In response, Coles wrote: "We're disappointed to hear that you felt the 'I'm Free' paddles put our team members and other customers in an uncomfortable situation. We have reiterated to our store team members that the paddles can be used at their discretion and where necessary, not to use the paddles. We're sorry for the disappointment."
Rebecca Owens hit back: "At their discretion? I'm sorry but some if not a lot of these kids will feel obligated to use this inappropriate advertising. I feel your duty of care for the overall well being of your staff has been grossly overlooked so that you can make a buck."
Clare Conroy Bagby wrote: "I want to know why Coles thought making poor young people, especially females, hold up 'I'm Free' signs this past weekend was a good idea. Surely you expected that they'd have to put up with pretty disgusting comments and would have thought that through first?"
Kim Baker wrote: "I would like to thank the marketing team for their thoughtless and demeaning promotion in the lead-up to Easter. Having employees holding a paddle with the words 'I'm Free' in large font (with 'at Coles' in tiny font, relative to the sign) and have to smile, laugh and nod at every lewd comment that passes their way, while scanning groceries is not an ideal work environment.
"Thankfully, that was not my experience during my entire shift this weekend past, however it happened enough times for me to feel uncomfortable in my workplace. How about 'How Can I Help?' or 'Can I Help You?' Same message, no sexual innuendo.
"I'm happy to get involved with most promotions that Coles have going, but this is not one of them. And I will actively encourage my teammates to not participate. I would appreciate it if Coles changed this catchphrase."
Coles did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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