Melbourne coffee business apologises for offering ‘free’ RATs … that weren’t so free

St Ali

St Ali's coffee shop in South Melbourne. Source: St Ali on Facebook.

A Melbourne coffee roaster has made a swift backtrack and issued an apology after offering ‘free’ rapid antigen tests to VIP customers, with a minimum spend of $159.99.

On Monday, St Ali sent out a text message to ‘special VIP customers’, saying it had secured a limited number of rapid antigen tests for staff, family and friends.

“As a special VIP customer, we’d like to extend these to you too,” the text message read, before offering a free two-pack of RATs with free shipping.

The text ends with the caveat: “Minimum spend of $159.99 applies.”

On Twitter, commentators called the offer “outrageous”, “appalling” and “outright extortion”.

“I think I just threw up in my mouth,” one said.

Many others declared they would no longer be spending with the business.

It wasn’t long before the business backtracked, issuing an apology via its Instagram stories, and through another text message. The deal was retracted, and the business promised to donate any surplus rapid antigen tests to a South Melbourne charity to distribute to those who need them most.

“We believed this was a way of supporting our customers whom [sic] purchase from us regularly,” the apology said.

“But the message has been lost. We can see in hindsight it was inappropriate.

“We are very sorry.”

St Ali

A screenshot of St Ali’s apology. Source: St Ali on Instagram.

St Ali is also selling supplies such as face masks and hand sanitisers and even pulse oximeters. Reports have surfaced of the business offering a ‘COVID SAFE Bundle’ package including these plus RAT tests, although there is no longer any mention of this package on its website.

How to handle a RAT-based reputation crisis

The current environment and discourse around RATs is heated, with the ACCC investigating price gouging and scams, and essential workers and vulnerable people being left without access to testing kits.

That means promotions like this one are bound to hit a nerve with would-be consumers, and St Ali is not the first to have fallen on the wrong side of public opinion.

Just last week, a business selling travel products launched a campaign offering a ‘free’ RAT with a $20 spend, two tests with a $40 spend, and so on.

While this business also received a slew of negative comments, the business owner doubled down on the deal, saying the team was simply trying to help its customers and that “critics and trolls won’t be permitted”.

In an article for SmartCompany, crisis and reputation management consultant Sally Branson Dalwood said tying any RAT giveaway to a product spend is a misstep, “no matter how well-intentioned”.

“Any post offering RATs in a time of great scarcity should have been worded very carefully; in the current climate it is such a sensitive and anxiety-inducing topic.”

However while both businesses, and others, made the error of turning a shortage of health supplies into an opportunity for sales, St Ali has chosen to quickly backtrack in the face of consumer criticism.

As Branson Dalwood notes, responding defensively can cause even more angst, alienating customers further.

“Arguing online with followers, not accepting that the post made the community angry, and engaging in debate created even more drama,” she said.

On social media, business owners should resist the temptation to engage and respond immediately, first taking the time to assess the situation and make a plan.

“Assess first, be clear on strategy and steps forward, and then communicate this,” she advises.

SmartCompany contacted St Ali for further comment but did not receive a response prior to publication.

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