There was a time when everyone I knew got milk delivered to their door. I must point out here that I am in my early thirties (35 at the end of the month, so technically I am still in my early thirties thank you), so I’m not going that far back really. I’m talking about a period of time after the Walkman but before the iPod, if that helps you picture things. Keep the picture in your mind colour please, we’re not talking black and white footage. Actually, when I was a child I honestly thought the my parents must have grown up in a monochrome world completely devoid of colour. That’s what happens when your big sister is a telly addict and your childhood is accompanied by the soundtrack of day time telly – you actually think the world must be exactly like on the telly.
It was a good job that I finally twigged that, although old films might have been shot in black and white, the actual world which was being filmed was colour. If I’d taken everything as fact on the telly I’d have believed that people actually lived in their homes with bears and camp little pink hippos – note I didn’t try to classify Zippy there (anyone know what he was? I’d love to know).
I digress, but the point is that every black and white programme I’ve ever seen includes a whistling milkman in it at some point. Back in the day I imagine that the union which represented milkmen also represented whoever’s role it is in telly and movie land to decide which extras to use – which could be true. If you think about it, it would make sense. Long hours of filming dictates tea breaks aplenty, so why not have a whistling milkman on hand to keep your milk stocks filled?
Not too long ago the milkman was a ubiquitous sight on the average UK street. You couldn’t get through the day without meeting at least one milkman and if you were a particularly eager housewife you could expect a couple of rendezvous before the delights of Pebble Mill. So, the question is – what’s happened to them all?
Death of the milkman
The USP of the milkman (aside from the ancillary benefits offered to certain customers… nudge, nudge, wink, wink) was all about convenience. I suppose in a time when lots of people didn’t have fridges and you needed a fresh bottle of milk delivered each morning – a milk delivery would be very convenient. Then we all got fridges – and yet the white stuff still flowed through our doorsteps. (For those with dirty minds, “The white stuff” is how the industry has been referring to milk in recent times, I wasn’t trying even more suspect sexual innuendo).
The milkman rode that challenge comfortably in his electric float, well as comfortably as you can ride anything in a milk float. But the rise of the supermarkets and the change in our glorious work/life balance (technology will free up leisure time – really?) gave the milkman and his milk float a real challenge and his batteries started to fade, a little like in the Duracell adverts except without a bunny in sight, although who knows what some of his conquests wore when he knocked on their door? Speaking of batteries, sales of AA batteries has soared in sharp contrast to the decline in the number of milkmen.
In marketing terms, milkmen are “stuck in the middle“. Their differentiated strategy of convenience is no longer convenient – it is easier to just buy your milk at Tesco. Also, having actually hired a milkmen a couple of years ago out of a moment of weakness it soon became clear that their service wasn’t very convenient at all. My milkman would turn up at 2am and wake me up, that’s if he turned up at all. When he did turn up he would leave random amounts of milk on my doorstep so that I was in a perpetual state of either having no milk in the house or way too much of it. They also can’t win on cost as it is much cheaper to buy milk from almost any shop than it is from the milkman. The only thing they have in their favour is the green card. That is to say that they could play on the whole recycle message – there are no plastic bottles from your milkman.
A milkman for a new millennia
Just as the milk float’s lights appeared to be dimming to eternal darkness there appears to be a glimmer of hope for the milk man. Almost as if he’d covered his roof with solar panels (not a bad idea to ram home the green credentials), the endangered milkman has now got a new source of energy for his flagging trade. The green card.
If green’s your thing the milkman’s your man. We’ve already covered the recycling aspect and of course his green delivery vehicle, but where could he go from there? Well, if his new USP was being green, the next logical step would be to review his product portfolio and make it all green. So out with the gold top and in with the organic. With his core offering of milk now more “tree hugger friendly” he could extend this to offer locally sourced products. Just think of the lack of air miles, Prince Charles (the man that talks to plants) would have no choice but to endorse this business surely.
Where the milkman needs to go now is to become the champion of local produce. So, in addition to milk, your milkman brings you fresh produce from local farmers. This would range from seasonal organic veg to seasonal meats – spring lamb, mmm. Yes, I know this is what Abel & Cole do, but they don’t have milk floats and they don’t have your plucky whistling milkman do they? They might be Abel & Cole, but milkmen are Willing, Able and Virile.
The milkman already has the distribution in place, so what would it take to talk to local farmers and put together a competing service with a twist? The twist being, the local nature. Abel & Cole is a national brand with petrol guzzling vans, but your milkman, well he’s YOUR milkman with his harmless little float – so claim at least four lonely house wifes in any town. Whereas Abel & Cole send you whatever they think you want, your plucky local milkman could give you a choice or two. And for the time-starved workaholics, I’m sure it’s not beyond the realms of technology to be able to deliver hot Cappuccinos to the door.
It would be a shame if the British Isles lost its milkmen. They are part of the furniture now. France has onion sellers on bikes (don’t they?) and we’ve got our milkmen. All it takes is a bit of entrepreneurial endeavour and they can keep the tradition alive and keep a few lonely women happy.