Welcome to the 18th annual Shonky Awards! That's right, the Shonkys are now old enough to vote, but the only milestone we're marking is another year of products, services and businesses that have left Australians frustrated, infuriated and out of pocket.
This year has been a tough one. In our view, that makes the Shonkys more important than ever.
"2023 has been yet another hard year for many Australians, with the cost-of-living crisis showing no signs of slowing down," says CHOICE CEO Alan Kirkland. "Rather than doing the right thing by consumers, our Shonky winners have only disappointed during this difficult time."
"We've seen Coles and Woolworths record huge profits and rental platforms data gouging people desperate for a home," adds Kirkland. "Microsoft has been hawking an Xbox 'fridge' that doesn't actually cool anything, Kogan is tricking customers into a $99 annual subscription, and personal alarms continue to fail when they're most needed."
Let's get down to Shonky business.
The 2023 CHOICE Shonky Awards go to…
- Woolworths and Coles – for cashing in during a cost-of-living crisis
- RentTech – for 'data gouging' people desperate to find a home
- Personal alarms – for being unreliable and hard to use
- Kogan First – for tricking customers into a $99 sign-up
- Xbox Mini Fridge – for being a 'fridge' that doesn't make things cold
Woolworths and Coles
When it comes to Woolworths and Coles – and grocery shopping in general – it feels as though Australians have gone through a collective awakening of sorts. Why has everything suddenly become so expensive?
Rising rents, increased interest rates and a soaring cost of living has us all feeling the pinch. Which makes it all the more frustrating to see both Woolworths and Coles posting massive profits.
Woolies arguably was the worst of the pair, with the group announcing a $1.62 billion profit in August, in a year when Australians are truly doing it tough. Over at Coles, the group posted a slightly more modest $1.1 billion profit. Anecdotally, many shoppers feel as though they're paying more for less.
"Coles and Woolworths have both recorded over a billion dollars in profits this year and most people feel like they're being fleeced," says Kirkland.
More than 60% of shoppers believe the big two are making a lot of money from the price hikes
"In a nationally representative survey CHOICE conducted in September this year, more than 60% of shoppers believe the big two are making a lot of money from the price hikes, and less than 20% think Coles and Woolworths are doing enough to keep prices low."
Our survey showed that 88% of Australians are worried about the cost of food and groceries, up from 56% in January 2021.
"Coles and Woolies have been promoting how they're supposedly helping with the cost of living, all while recording huge profits," adds Kirkland. "With some of their specials it may be hard to tell if you're even getting a genuine discount. They are well and truly deserving of a Shonky Award."
Outside of grocery prices, one of the biggest issues impacting cost of living is rent. People who rent aren't just struggling to pay ever-increasing rental prices, they're often struggling to find a place to live.
In that context, third-party rental platforms – AKA the 'RentTech' apps people are often forced to use in order to apply for a place to live – are a huge issue.
Folks are regularly being asked to hand over a ridiculous amount of personal data – bank statements, references from their last five jobs, even photos of children and pets – just to put a roof over their heads.
Considering the increased proliferation of data breaches, not to mention the myriad ways companies mine our data for profit, these rental apps are more than worthy of a Shonky Award.
There's an increasing need to regulate these apps to ensure that tenants are protected from unfair and exploitative practices
CHOICE believes there's an increasing need to regulate these apps to ensure that tenants are protected from unfair and exploitative practices.
"We're hoping to see strong action by our governments on RentTech, because RentTech businesses will continue to exploit the housing crisis for their own gain until robust guardrails are set up," says CHOICE senior campaigns and policy adviser Rafi Alam (pictured).
Read more: 2023 Shonky Award for RentTech
The elderly and the infirm are among the most vulnerable in Australian society, and it's for this reason CHOICE has given a 2023 Shonky to the entire personal alarm category.
The personal alarms we've tested are devices equipped with a button that can alert carers in the event of a fall or an emergency. They're generally used by the elderly and are designed to provide loved ones with peace of mind. If something happens, the personal alarm will allow the wearer to alert someone quickly and effectively. Great, right? Well, not exactly…
The issue: we've found these devices are unreliable at best, and often simply don't work.
We've found these devices are unreliable at best, and often simply don't work
"We've found that if your loved one wanders onto a train or another form of public transport, the reception is sometimes so poor that the personal alarm won't work when the user tries to activate it," says CHOICE test coordinator Scott O'Keefe.
Another key feature we tested, one that sends alerts if the wearer goes outside a pre-determined "fence", also regularly failed.
When you consider the stakes, personal alarms aren't the type of devices that should fail. That failure could result in a life or death situation.
"We'd like to see irresponsible suppliers change their behaviour so that these products meet consumer needs and expectations about performance and ease of use," says CHOICE head of reviews and testing Matthew Steen. "As it stands, we see carers seeking peace of mind from a product that's often just a waste of money."
Read more: 2023 Shonky Award for personal alarms
Kogan First subscription
Shopping online can often feel like navigating a minefield. Which terms and conditions box do I need to tick? Which box do I need to untick to avoid being spammed?
How about a box you need to untick to avoid getting a surprise $99 fee two weeks down the line? This is exactly what's happening with the Kogan First subscription program.
Here's how it works. You try to buy something on Kogan or Dick Smith's online store. You go to the checkout section. A "free shipping" option is ticked by default and you think, great! Free shipping!
But here's what you might have missed if you skipped the fine print: you've actually just signed up to a two-week trial of Kogan First. And if you don't cancel before those two weeks are up, you're about to be stung for $99.
Here's what you might have missed if you skipped the fine print: you've actually just signed up to a two-week trial of Kogan First
This is precisely what happened to CHOICE reader Warren.
"The first I knew about First was when $99 was withdrawn from my PayPal account," Warren says. "I found it impossible to contact Dick Smith without first setting up a Kogan account, something I was naturally reluctant to do."
Kogan told CHOICE that customers can "cancel their membership at any time within the 14-day trial period and are emailed reminders at the start and the end of their free 14-day trial membership".
However, as many of us know, emails like this are easily missed. Warren eventually got a full refund after lodging a complaint with Consumer Affairs Victoria and sending a letter to Kogan, but we wondered how many had gotten themselves into a similar situation.
So we did a test. We asked 19 shoppers to head to the Kogan website and shop as they might on any website. A shocking six of those 19 accidentally signed up to Kogan First. None of them were aware of what they had done and, crucially, none of them knew they were set for a surprise $99 charge two weeks later.
A gap in Australia's consumer laws makes it easier for businesses to get away with dodgy tricks like theseCHOICE campaigns and policy adviser Alex Söderlund
We believe it's all too easy for companies to entrap customers in schemes like these.
"A gap in Australia's consumer laws makes it easier for businesses to get away with dodgy tricks like these," says CHOICE campaigns and policy adviser Alex Söderlund.
"Other jurisdictions like the United States, European Union, the United Kingdom and Singapore all have laws that protect consumers against unfair business practices. Australia needs to catch up."
Very shonky indeed.
Xbox Mini Fridge
When you buy a fridge, you generally expect it to make things cold. That seems important. That's part of the deal, surely?
Unfortunately the Xbox Mini Fridge, the result of a partnership between Microsoft and Ukonic, fails at that very basic task.
A gimmick fridge developed in response to online jokes about the Xbox Series X console (it looks like a fridge, geddit?), the Xbox Mini Fridge is a worryingly shonky product that absolutely fails at its core task.
In our 32°C test chamber, it took around 24 hours to take eight cans to a not-that-cold-actually 21°C. For context, that's warmer than water from the tap. Not ideal.
And it's an energy-hungry beast as well. Our testing found that if you ran the Xbox Mini Fridge 24 hours a day, it would pull down a ludicrous 376kWh a year at an ambient temperature of 32°C.
For context, that's roughly equivalent to the energy use of a 500-litre compressor fridge in your kitchen – a device that is actually capable of cooling its contents.
The Xbox Mini Fridge is essentially e-waste straight out of the boxCHOICE fridge expert Ashley Iredale
"The Xbox Mini Fridge is essentially e-waste straight out of the box," says CHOICE fridge expert Ashley Iredale. "This questionable addition to your gaming rig isn't powerful enough to cool your drinks – you need to chill them in a real fridge first – which is disappointing because it sure draws a whole lot of power, using as much electricity as the full-sized fridge in our kitchen."
In recent years Microsoft has led the charge in the tech world when it comes to energy-saving initiatives, particularly when it comes to the Xbox and its gaming businesses. Which makes it all the more disappointing they played a part in this lemon of a product. Extremely Shonky.
Read more: 2023 Shonky Award for the Xbox Mini Fridge