Pay R3m or retract! Scare for Joburg dad who accused Spar of hiking prices

Wendy Knowler Consumer journalist
A Johannesburg sales rep has apologised for claiming that his local supermarkets were hiking prices during the Covid-19 lockdown.
A Johannesburg sales rep has apologised for claiming that his local supermarkets were hiking prices during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Image: 123RF/ GUI YONGNIAN

A Robertsham man who claimed in a Facebook post that supermarkets in his area of Johannesburg were hiking their prices during lockdown received a demand of R3m from the owner of one of the stores for “financial losses and reputational damage”.

On March 29, Mohammed posted on the Robertsham Community Facebook page: “We need to report all the retail shops in our area ... I have noticed they have hiked their pricing between 5% and 10% on fast-moving items ... Please can we get an authority involved as they are making more money just because we are on lockdown ... ”

Urged by other community members to “name and shame”, he added: “So far I have noticed Spar Xavier” and he went on to name specific branches of Pick n Pay, Woolworths and Shoprite.

On April 1, Mohammed received a letter on Facebook Messenger from an attorney representing the owner of Spar Xavier, saying his statements were “completely untrue, vexatious and highly defamatory” and had caused that store serious financial losses and reputational damage”.

“Our client has computed its financial losses to date resulting from your unlawful actions in the sum of R3m.”

That equates to R1m a day.

Mohammed was instructed to pay that amount within 14 days, failing which a summons would be issued against him in the Gauteng high court.

He was also instructed to remove the post and issue an “appropriate” written apology to the store.

Having apologised to the attorney on Facebook Messenger and removed the offending post, Mohammed asked the attorney why the letter had been sent.

“I just raised by concerns in these trying times ... ” he protested.

The attorney responded by suggesting that he obtain the services of an attorney.

“I won’t even see that money in my lifetime,” Mohammed later told SowetanLIVE's sister publication TimesLIVE. “Please help me.”

A sales rep, Mohammed said he was frustrated at the time of posting his comments as he hadn’t yet been paid for March and he needed to buy provisions for his three young children, including a nine-month-old baby.

“I realise now it was irresponsible,” he said. “I have no evidence of what I claimed.”

Approached for comment, SuperSpar Xavier owner Sandeep Desai confirmed that he’d instructed his attorneys to send the letter in response to the “unfounded and damaging” allegations Mohammed had posted on Facebook, to protect the store and the Spar brand.

“Since the outbreak of Covid-19 and the subsequent state lockdown, we have kept all prices in line with prices as recommended by Spar head office,” he said. “This has been our approach since the inception of our store nine months ago.”

“We must protect our business and the livelihoods of our 75 employees.

“Therefore, we were compelled to seek legal redress and are comfortable with our calculation of the reputational damages and harm suffered by us.”

The store’s invoices, pricing and point of sale systems were open to scrutiny “by the relevant authorised body” at any time, Desai said.

He told TimesLIVE he was willing to close the matter and not pursue the damages claim, provided Mohammed made a public apology “on the same forum as the original posting”.

Mohammed complied late Monday.

Social media law specialist attorney Verlie Oosthuizen, of Shepstone and Wylie Attorneys, said proving special damages such as loss of income in a defamation case was particularly difficult.

“Extensive evidence would have to be led, with proof of such loss, and that proof would have to show that the loss was linked, on a balance of probabilities, to the defamatory statement,” she said.

As for the consumer, she said, a complete defence to defamation is that the statement was true and for the public benefit. That would also need to be proved.

Keyboard warriors should not engage in naming and shaming on social media
Attorney Verlie Oosthuizen

“This is another good lesson about the dangers of naming and shaming on social media,” Oosthuizen said.

“There are ways and means for consumers to complain and report alleged injustices, and I am of the firm belief that keyboard warriors should not engage in naming and shaming on social media.”

A few days before Mohammed's now-removed Facebook post, the National Consumer Commission (NCC) publicly “named and shamed” 11 retail stores — including two Spar stores, and individual Checkers Hyper, Makro, Clicks and Pick n Pay stores — as being under investigation for hiking the prices of essential goods during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Asked to comment, they vehemently denied the allegations, and protested that the claims needed to be looked at before being announced.

“It is very disappointing to be publicly named as being under investigation,” said Rachel Wrigglesworth, Clicks’ chief commercial officer, responding to the inclusion of Clicks’ Westgate Mall store on the list of 11 stores which the NCC is to investigate. “We hope that in future the regulators will consider the veracity of the complaint before going to the media.”

Excessive price hikes can be reported to the NCC by calling 0800 014 880.

GET IN TOUCH: You can contact Wendy Knowler for advice with your consumer issues via e-mail: consumer@knowler.co.za or on Twitter: @wendyknowler.


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