Coles has withdrawn its “I’m free” hand-held signs after female employees complained of being sexually harassed by customers making derogatory comments.
The supermarket giant pushed the “I’m Free” slogan as part of its Easter campaign to promote additional checkouts being opened during the busy season.
But the televised advertisement copped backlash due to its depiction of a female staff member flirting with a customer while fanning herself with the “I’m free” hand-held sign.
Coles has since received several complaints about the sexual innuendo that is implied by the slogan “I’m free” and staff members have reported incidents of sexual harassment to their store managers.
Pakenham resident and Coles employee Jordan Williams, 18, told The New Daily he had witnessed his female colleagues being targeted by customers making crude remarks.
He said the Coles marketing team had poorly worded the “I’m Free” signs.
“Last weekend there were a lot of comments made to the girls and they felt uncomfortable … things like ‘If you’re free why don’t you come home with me’ and ‘Are you free tonight?’ and several prostitution jokes,” he said.
“The girls at first just laughed it off, but they then tried to show their discomfort without being rude to the customers. I think they did a great job.
“I did receive some from some of the older women but I didn’t mind so much. But I can definitely see why the girls felt the way they did.”
Several staff and customers expressed their disgust on social media, with employee Kim Baker describing it as a “thoughtless and demeaning” promotion.
She said a better message could have been “Can I help you” or “How can I help”.
“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,” she said.
“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.
“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.”
Adelaide customer Lorraine Ireland said she thought the signs were “demoralising”.
“Its terrible,” she said. “The kids behind the checkouts just cringe with embarrassment.”
Victorian resident Cheryl Pole Hepburn said she was “absolutely horrified” after seeing staff members holding the sign targeted by rude customers.
“The verbal abuse and suggestions coming from customers to staff members was disgusting … If I knew any friends’ daughters or sons applying for work as a cashier I’d advise against it.”
Melbourne customer Rona Milne said one of the female cashiers told her that “all the girls in the store had been sexually harassed as a result of these signs”.
A Coles spokeswoman told The New Daily the use of the signs had intended to help cashiers signal that their checkout was open in a “fun way”.
“Unfortunately in response to a small number of customers behaving disrespectfully to team members, we have now removed the hand-held signs.”