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Pokies debate for Woolies as Amazon looms

 

Woolworths chairman Gordon Cairns has said he doubts $1 bet limits on poker machines will help problem gamblers, after facing questions about the supermarket giant's gaming business.

The veteran retailer, facing shareholders at Woolworths' annual general meeting, also addressed the looming arrival of Amazon, flagging an "obsessive" focus on customers to keep them away from the online giant and outlining new "dark stores" to improve Woolworths' capacity to serve online shoppers.

Shareholders and anti-gambling advocates peppered Mr Cairns with questions and criticism of the company's poker machines operations during Thursday's AGM in Melbourne.

The supermarket giant is one of Australia's largest poker machine operators through its ownership of more than 330 hotels.

Mr Cairns was asked if he will consider following Coles, which owns 89 hotels, in seeking to introduce $1 maximum bets on pokies.

"There is no empirical evidence that it will improve the incidences of problem gambling," he said.

He said Woolworths was the first national hotel operator to adopt voluntary pre-commitment, which allows gamblers to nominate a spending or time limit on a machine.

"We are the most responsible operator of gaming machines in Australia and we will have that validated by a recognised world authority from Canada that is coming down to audit us," he said.

A former gambling addict told the AGM that she lost 10 years of her life to gambling and, while she no longer plays the pokies, cannot go to the pub for a meal without feeling "the pull of the pokies room".

"Those machines took something from me that I don't know how to get back," she said.

Mr Cairns said her story was "heartbreaking" and the company was committed to ensuring people like her are looked after.

"The majority of people who use our facilities come there and have an enjoyable time," he said.

"A minority of people have a problem and we have to address both."

Anti-gambling advocate and Melbourne councillor Susan Rennie called Woolworths the most aggressive and predatory poker machine operator in the country, saying it lobbied against changes that could make pokies safer.

"Woolworths the pokies people doesn't have the same ring as Woolworths the fresh food people," she said as she sought election to the Woolworths board.

That effort failed, with only 2.9 per cent of shareholder votes in her favour.

With Amazon due to open its Australian operations as early as Friday, Mr Cairns said if Woolworths was not obsessive about customers' needs, it would lose them to rivals like the online behemoth.

Woolworths will open new dark stores - supermarkets closed to the public and used exclusively to fill online orders - in Sydney and Melbourne in early 2018, adding to a current Sydney store, to boost its competitiveness, with two more stores planned.

Mr Cairns also reportedly told media after the AGM that suppliers needed to be careful they were not "cutting their own throat" by selling through Amazon and becoming exposed to any price cuts the online outfit might make.