Sounding Board: Basic Training

While many retailers use the end-of-year period to refocus their businesses, what does “back to basics” really mean?

How many times over the years have you heard the phrase “back to basics?”

For some reason, it seems to come up a lot during the holiday season. Maybe it is because stores realize they are overstocked in higher-priced items and not carrying enough chopped chuck or chicken thighs. Or maybe I have been hanging around with too many department store retailers who start to panic about year-end markdowns.

It all depends on how you define basics. But in the past couple of weeks I have heard it used in two vastly different contexts—both of which can radically affect your business.
At a meeting last week someone casually used the term. The guy next to him—without looking up from his salad—said rather abruptly, “if you don’t have the basics down at this point then you shouldn’t be in business or you won’t be for long.”

However, the basics should not be taken for granted, nor should you assume that once you know them, you are good for life.

On that note, I want to discuss the issue on two levels; employees who could use a couple of lessons in the basics and a new generation of customers for whom basic cooking skills might as well be advanced calculus.

At a time when everyone is talking about job creation, a recent survey by Deloitte said that 600,000 manufacturing jobs were unfilled last year due to a skills shortage—not a lack of computer or professional skills, but “soft” skills such as answering a phone or even a working knowledge of the English language.

Another survey by the Manpower Group found that interpersonal skills, enthusiasm and motivation were most lacking. Other studies cited such things as work ethic and simple punctuality as basic skills that eluded many younger people.

Even more serious were comments in recent editorial by Nick Schulz of the American Enterprise Institute. He was attending a dinner with representatives of major manufacturing firms and asked one of them what skills they looked for in potential employees. His reply? “We have a hard time finding people who can pass a drug test.”

On a lighter note, many younger shoppers could not pass a basic cooking class.

I recently spoke with author and celebrity chef Ellie Krieger. I have to admit to being a little star struck and I started gushing about how much I love her recipes. Anyone out there who knows me also knows that I am not given to gushing about any one or any thing. But she was incredibly gracious and we eventually got down to some interesting insights on getting back to basics.

One thing was something not one every mentions—combating the lack of basic cooking and food preparation skills by bringing “home economics” back to the schools.  For those of you born after 1965, this may seem to be a somewhat archaic concept.

Given the widespread cutbacks in school budgets and failure to teach even basic reading, writing and arithmetic, it seems unlikely that “Home Ec” will be on the curriculum any time soon. But it is the way that a lot of people learned their way around a kitchen.

It might also be a way to solve the devastating child obesity crisis, according to Krieger, “There’s a lot of research indicating that if children are involved in preparing and choosing foods then they are more likely to try and enjoy them,” she said.

The best scenario is not to wait for schools to act on their own, but for retailers to be proactive in developing programs with local schools, said Krieger, who did this with her daughter’s public school in New York City with help from supermarkets such as Whole Foods.

She is also an advocate of the back-to-basics movement in the stores.

Instead of emulating TV chefs she encourages retailers to do more simple demos that will help make cooking a more enjoyable experience for their shoppers. In fact, scratch cooking does not really have to be from scratch. She suggested that more retailers start promoting something as simple as a rotisserie chicken and salad for dinner. It will appeal to customers who cannot or do not have the time to cook from scratch but want to feel they are giving their families a home-cooked meal.

It seems there is a lot to be said for getting back to basics on several levels.

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