Inside Coles Swap Day: ‘Bit crazy’
THERE truly is nothing like the collective energy of human beings brought together by a shared passion for something they love.
Here, at Coles Little Shop Swap Day in Kellyville, in Sydney's Hills District, the energy is focused and intense.
"They just need the Lipton Tea and they needed the water but we swapped already with someone else. Why wait for Coles?" So says Paul, a chipper dad from Kellyville who was here before me, (I arrived at 9am).
The event is scheduled to kick off at 10am, but by 9.10 around 20 other early birds have started hovering around an empty desk outside the supermarket. Orange bollards are dotted around the shopping centre to control the swelling crowd. Two security guards start circling the perimeter.
Ten minutes before the event is about to kick off, the once orderly line is starting to lose its structure and is becoming more of a crowd around the desk. Everybody has sandwich bags full of excess minis and grocery lists of what they want, what they need.
"I want this, I've got this," they say to one another, quickly assessing if they can help one another complete their collections.
They share secrets on maximising their collection growth. They trade war stories about snipey staff not letting them fondle the packets at the checkout to let them figure out what's inside. They whinge about the black market on eBay ruining the fairness of the trading culture. This is the language of the Coles Little Shop Swappers.
I approach one of the staff members from Coles manning the swap desk.
"I've never done this before," she says with some trepidation,
"But I'm ready."
When I asked her if she'd been briefed on the day, she told me the crowds would be big, and that she'd been told not to do the swaps with children under 12 or with any unaccompanied kids.
"It seems weird. It's supposed to be their day."
How does Coles Mini Shop work?
For every $30 spent at Coles, customers were rewarded with a single plastic replica of a popular grocery item.
The minis are items any kid would recognise: little instant noodles, little tins of Milo, Vegemite jars, little squeezies of Chobani strawberry yoghurt, Nutella jars, chocolate Oaks, Weetbix packets.
Some items are much more domestic but no less adorable when miniaturised - toilet bleach, dishwashing tablets, nappies, dog food.
Why are people swarming the swap?
Jane, a schoolteacher from Kellyville tells me with frustration: "I got three tunas in a row! It's a lot to spend on groceries, and that's what ends up happening."
There are 30 minis in total, so the cheapest a full set can cost an individual, assuming they get a unique item each time, is $900.
Coles has detailed Terms and Conditions laid out on the Coles Little Shop website to protect it from disgruntled customers, including the stipulation that, "Collectables are provided to customers entirely at random and cannot be exchanged by Coles staff members for another Collectable once opened by the customer except at a Swap Day as detailed in clause 2.10, 2.11, 2.12 and 2.13."
Although these people are getting these Coles Minis as freebies with their groceries, not as individual items, a minimum spend of $900 over two months is still a fair whack for any household - which explains why the Coles Mini Shop Swap days are so popular - it's the last chance for people to complete their collection.
A man next to Jane in the line pipes up: "I know a girl who couldn't get a mini because she was 30 cents off on her groceries."
Jane said some staff were helpful at the point of sale and some weren't, a sentiment echoed by other swappers, like Christine, from Baulkham Hills, who was at Kellyville to swap with her son Matthew.
"Staff were helping us get the minis we wanted by feeling the packets. You can kind of feel what's inside, as they're all different shapes. But as they banned the plastic bags it all started to take too much time and they had to put a stop to it."
There is also a lot of chatter about the scarcity of the collector folders within the line.
Jane, again, clues me up: "The books are impossible to come by, they never had enough and now people are selling them for $15 dollars on eBay. They were originally $4. People just bought stacks of them."
When it comes to Coles minis, collectors don't mind doing the hard yards, but the Aussie shoppers just want a fair go.
The same goes for the Facebook group, Coles Little Shop - Minis Swap Group Australia, a private which is heavily guarded by its admins.
A poster yesterday offered to buy the miniatures and was quickly jumped on by other users, who demanded they be banned from the group. The group's sole purpose is for swapping only. No profits are to be made. (On eBay the miniatures are selling for hundreds of dollars).
Why do people love Coles Minis?
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about miniature supermarket items that has captured the imagination of thousands of Australians over such a short period of time.
Little plastic replicas of food are no new thing - cute kawaii culture is popular in Japan, with mini meals like soups and sushi, fruits and fish littering supermarkets and toy shops and corner stores in major cities. Making them Australian has its own appeal - we've never seen a teeny tiny Tim Tam or puny packet of Potato Gems.
Australians are often accused of being confused about what their culture is - where America has its self determination and the British have their stiff upper lip, Australians love the idea of having a fair go. It informs how we interact, and it has informed how consumers have behaved with Coles Little Shop.
It's become about having a fair go.
Within the Facebook group, frustrated collectors discuss their inability to complete their collections, halted by the program's rollout, which they allege was dogged with various issues - unequal distribution is just one of the issues the participants have alleged within the group.
"Oak [milk cartons] is so common it's getting annoying", said one Facebook user, while another explained her theory: "They mustn't have been distributed equally."
Streams of comments followed about unequal distribution of miniatures across the country, causing gluts of some products in some areas and scarcity in others.
News.com.au also sniffed a scandal taking place in the sleepy seaside town of Yamba, where a shopper allegedly overheard staff bragging about swiping the scarce collectibles and dispersing them among the employees, leaving no collectibles for customers after a box of the miniatures was delivered.
The store manager would not comment on the allegations but said the cases of minis had been "retrieved" from staff and been made available to the public again. Fair go.
This is serious stuff to these collectors. I would not describe the vibe as relaxed. I approached some people, and while nobody was unfriendly, when they assessed I had nothing to trade, they had no hesitation in turning their backs on me.
It's easy to label these collecting endeavours as useless or time wasting - perhaps the return on $30 of groceries for a mini version of a household item might seem an unfair trade off - but a fair go seems the name of the game among the collectors.
Is the end in sight?
Roslyn is here with her daughter Zena, and they have a coveted folder. I ask them if they're having fun collecting the minis.
"Ah, it's been fun." Roslyn replies. She looks around at people pacing the line and rapidly wheeling and dealing around her. "It's a bit crazy here."
"People are keeping them [their minis] close to their chest, they only want to trade which is frustrating. Zena only needs Weetbix."
A man storms past shopping the line for minis: "Weetbix!" He scoffs, "That's easy!"
Later Zena runs over to me beaming and shows me her completed case. In a rare act of kindness, her and Roslyn were giving away their extra minis for free without trading.
Coles is retiring the Little Shop campaign, for now. But Seven News reported last week that the supermarket chained had signed on marketing firm Unga to continue the program in 2019.
"Well, why wouldn't they continue it?" said Jane, when I told her about the 2019 program.
"I shop here now more than I used to," she told me while all the other swappers around her nodded their heads.
"What I want now is for them to make Lebanese bread," her husband joked, while everybody cracked into laughter.
- Phoebe Loomes is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation via Twitter @dollyybird