'˜Prosecco is fine '“ if it's cheap'

IN an age when the household freezer is as commonplace as a matching kettle and toaster, you wouldn't have thought we would need instructing on how to use it.

Kate Hardcastle

But what was in the 1960s and 1970s a new kitchen science has become something of a black art, according to the marketing expert and self-styled “consumer whisperer”, Kate Hardcastle.

A mother-of-three from Huddersfield, her common-sense advice has benefited such diverse organisations as the Co-op and Kirklees Council, and tonight she returns as one of the experts on ITV’s consumer series, Eat, Shop, Save.

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It is her mission, she says, to encourage families to deploy their budgets, and their appliances, more wisely, and she acknowledges that too many households today have forgotten what their freezers are supposed to be for.

“People tend to use them for ice cubes and frozen chips which is a bit sad really,” she says. “There are a lot of myths around frozen food – about what you can and can’t freeze. People are really quite nervous about using them.

“To me, they’re like banks – you put in the money you’ve spent on food, and they make it last longer and deliver you more meals.”

The barbecue season on long, hot summers like this are partly to blame, she says.

“People have had meat that’s not been defrosted properly, or they’ve see fish on one of those theatrical fishmonger counters at the supermarket and not realised it’s been previously frozen, and they’re frightened off using the freezer.”

But deep-freezers, and indeed fridges, are at their worst when used to store ready meals, she says.

“More than anything, I’m trying to wean families off pre-made food.

“Too many people are buying ready-made meals at a high cost that’s hurting their family shopping budgets. I’m all about getting them to prepare things and using their freezers to make the food go further.”

At the root of the issue, she believes, are the time constraints on parents.

“People get sidetracked with their jobs, overloaded at work and taking on extra shifts, and the first thing we tend to do is sacrifice ourselves.

“We might look after the kids and make sure they’re sorted out, but our own diets, our own health and our savings go to pot.”

Supermarkets, she says, share the blame for encouraging bad housekeeping practices.

“They’ve moved away from the ‘buy one, get one free’ offers that were about clearing shelves full of products they didn’t need and getting rid of the extra volume. They’re more sensitive now.

“But instead, there are new ranges. All the gluten free foods on the shelves are brilliant if you actually need to follow a celiac diet – but some of them are double or triple the price of ordinary food.”

But though supermarkets use sophisticating marketing techniques to persuade us to part with more of our money than is strictly necessary, they are minor offenders compared to some in the service industries.

Ms Hardcastle says the train companies are entirely deserving of the criticism that accompanied the cancellations and delays wrought by new timetables earlier this summer – but she has some sympathy for staff in the firing line, with whom making eye contact has become increasingly difficult.

“Service tends to go awry when people don’t have the tools to deliver it or when they feel they’re under constant threat,” she says.

“The front line of the industry is taking the criticism for decisions made in a boardroom. If you’re being abused every day for timetabling issues that you didn’t create, it can be really hard to carry on looking up and smiling and helping someone.

“The public is spending proportionately so much and getting a really poor service.

“I’m very saddened by it because people spending hundreds of pounds on train tickets deserve so much better.”

Though Ms Hardcastle had a conventional business training – she took a management degree at Salford University – her schooling in the subject came originally from watching Esther Rantzen and Watchdog on TV, and from her grandparents – all four of whom, in Bradford and Elland, were retailers.

She had her first taste of poor service as a 14 year-old at the make-up counter, being made to feel embarrassed.

“Even then, I realised it didn’t need to be like this,” she says. “I thought, look – I’ve got pound notes here.”

Many also fail to understand how to keep the customers they have, she adds.

“It’s a surprise to me how many companies could be doing so much better if they just invested a bit of time and effort in the right areas,” she says.

“Very large organisations in the online world are prepared to lose and abuse customers over very small matters like deliveries going astray and not making it clear who’s responsible.

“No-one should have to get to that stage with a retail company. You should have them falling over themselves trying to keep you for next time.

“I was always taught in business school that it costs a lot of money to acquire a customer and it’s much cheaper to keep them. But I’ve seen businesses losing customers hand over fist – and in a tine when the economy’s challenged and we don’t know how we’re going to get people through the door.”

There remains, she says, too much jargon in the corporate world.

“All businesses like to say they’re customer focused – but I don’t buy it. I think I’ve got a job for the rest of my life.”

Eat, Shop, Save, tonight at 7.30 on ITV.