Gold Top Service

5th August 2011

Heather Harris raises a glass to local milkmen

Housewives of the world rejoice – the door-to-door milkman is no longer threatened with extinction. Once the butt of more saucy jokes than your average seaside postcard, this rarely sighted creature is now thriving, and there’s even a website dedicated to helping you track down the closest one in your area. The suggestively named findmeamilkman.net is not a niche dating agency but just part of the dairy industry’s plan to drag itself into the 21st century.

As Dairy UK’s Edmund Proffitt said: “Findmeamilkman.net has proved extremely popular – and the latest upsurge in visitors, coupled with the huge growth in products available, confirms that people throughout Britain really value the doorstep service from their milkman.”

And it’s not just lonely housewives who appreciate this, as 44 year-old Guy Whittaker tells me as he finishes his ten-hour-long round, “In 20 years as a milkman I’ve never once been propositioned. There’s no typical customer. I deliver to little old ladies, families, single men, businesses and shops.”

As well as matching potential new customers with their nearest delivery service, findmeamilkman also enables (and encourages) customers to order and pay online – although Guy admits that some of his regulars still prefer to leave pound notes stuffed in the washed out bottle.

It’s a far cry from 1880, when Britain saw its very first milk bottles, complete with porcelain stopper top held on by a wire. Carried by horse-drawn carts (which were marginally faster than today’s electric milk floats and marginally less annoying to be stuck behind) they were delivered up to four times a day. Clearly they ate a lot of Weetabix back then.

It wasn’t until 1894, when one Anthony Hailwood developed the sterilising process, that milk could be delivered just once a day. It came in glass bottles of all shapes and sizes embossed with the name of the dairies on the side…

…and collectors today love them– eBay is currently milking the market for all it’s worth, with hundreds of old bottles listed at a wide range of prices, from a ‘large size West Riding Dairies Harrogate Milk Bottle’ for 99p to a ‘Matanuska Maid ALASKA Orange pyro TRPQ ACL’ for £77.90 (plus £36.46 postage, from the USA). Somehow I can’t see a Tesco plastic three litre semi-skimmed carrying the same nostalgic value for our grandchildren in a few decades time.

Despite decades of popularity, though, back in 2006 with the country awash with supermarkets, the daily delivery suddenly seemed past its sell by date. The BBC ran a headline piece which churned the stomach of every working milky: “The traditional milkman has been marginalised by changing social patterns. People now buy milk in cheap, open all hours supermarkets.”

Doorstep deliveries had fallen from 2.5 billion litres in 1996 to just 637 million by 2006 with only 13% of milk consumed coming from delivery rounds.

Luckily for Guy and his colleagues, the dairy industry refused to kowtow (or ‘cowtow’, perhaps?) to the big boys and in the same year Dairy Crest bought Aria Foods’ Express Dairies for £33 million, to become Britain’s biggest milk-delivery service called ‘Milk&more’. They took on the supermarkets at their own game, not only by initiatives such as findmeamilkman.net and its online facility, but also by increasing the range of products.

As Chris Nunn, their spokesman explained, “Milk&more combines the tradition and familiarity of the milk delivery service with the convenience of online shopping. It’s still your local milkman but bringing home a range of 250 products from breakfast essentials to cleaning and gardening items.”

By January 2011, one thousand families a week were signing up. Customers quickly discovered the advantages of ordering pints, pet food and Pringles etc up to 9pm the night before and even electronically letting their milkman know when they were going on holiday. As one satisfied customer explained, “I feel I’m doing my bit to support local industry, as well as solving the problem of always running out of milk and essentials.”

Dairy Crest also launched a franchise service. Would-be milkmen can get now run their very own round – complete with personal milk float and uniform. All they need, according to Guy, “is physical fitness and verbal diarrhoea!”

“I walk hundreds of miles a week and am always lifting and carrying,” he tells me. “It takes me nine or ten hours every day because I always make time to chat. It’s part of the job.”

Guy acknowledges that some innocent ‘flirting’ goes on with those ladies he knows well. “I’ve watched their children grow up – from babies and now off to University. Twenty years ago I used to tell them all about my own children and they’d often buy them sweets. They still ask after them now!”

He is clearly delighted with the recent increase in business. “Because of the internet I’ve got more deliveries and average spend has gone up,” he said, adding that dog food is one of his most popular doorstep additions.

But there is a slightly sour side effect. “Instead of 5am, I now start my round at 2am, because with more deliveries and people starting work earlier this is the only way I’ll get their pinta on the doorstep for their breakfast cereal!”

Dedication indeed, especially when there’s two foot of snow outside. Last winter, Guy loaded his deliveries onto his four wheel drive and didn’t miss a day (and his snowy endeavours impressed the Swedish edition of the Grocer magazine so much that they featured his story complete with photos. “Not centre-fold though,” he laughs).

Guy’s favourite time of day is 4.30am, when in the summer he sees families of badgers and watches plants wake up by unfurling their leaves to the sun.

“And I can now cope with six hours sleep a night, I do hate rain though. It’s far worse than cold because if you get wet at the start of your round you stay wet till lunchtime.” Unless, of course, one day a kindly housewife finally invites him in to ‘slip out of his wet things’.

“And I nearly got into trouble once when a man asked me to help push his car and I suddenly noticed he’d hot wired it and I was actually helping him steal it!”

You don’t get anecdotes like that in the check-out queue, now do you?

Next time you open the fridge door, sniff the carton and discover there’s no fresh milk, and are forced to pour apple juice on your cornflakes and to try to convince your taste buds that they really do like black tea, think of Guy. He and his mates are just a click and a doorstep away. And unlike the supermarkets you won’t be short changed on conversation.

British milkmen really are the cream of the crop.

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