Unigate’s gloomy forecast last week of an even sharper decline in the doorstep “pinta” – already dwindling by 17 per cent per annum and likely to represent no more than 25 per cent of the company’s total milk sales within three years – was to supermarket critics just one more stick with which to beat the “greedy” multiples.
The argument that says the empire-building of Sainsbury’s has effectively stifled all significant shopping choice is a persuasive one, particularly when people like poor old Milky are sacrificed at the altar of greater cost efficiency.
Yet without wishing to pour gallons of fromage frais over already troubled milk floats, weren’t the agonising death-throes of the doorstep milkman almost wholly avoidable?
Twenty years ago, when superstores were little more than a twinkle in the eyes of Ian McLaurin and the like, the milkman or woman not only provided milk – mostly whole, skimmed not being too fashionable in those days – but also carried in those deceptively spacious waggons a whole host of other dairy products such as yoghurt, cream, butter and cheese.
There were also stowed on-board bulkier items such as eggs, potatoes, juice and bread, sometimes even chicken or meat, that could be ordered in advance.
Almost certainly the non-milk items were more expensive than those in the fast-emerging chains of supermarkets, but the fact that the goods came straight to the door – and were available on interest-free credit terms – was a convenience people were willing to pay for.
Today, while the variety of milk on a float is seemingly endless – semi-skimmed, green top, long-life, homogenised – the non-milk items are, um, almost exactly the same as they were 20 years ago. Give or take a few hundred cartons of fromage frais and, where the milkman is really inventive, a few packets of digestives.
So in the two decades or so since dairies hit on the idea of stocking potatoes, bread and other essentials along with the milk, they have barely expanded on the offer. Even though the supermarkets themselves have in that same time period created a new way of shopping.
Now no one expects Unigate to compete with Tesco, nor would it probably wish to.
But couldn’t the unique position of the British milkman – familiar enough to catch the lady of the house in her curlers, and a whole lot less if the winks and nudges about “extra pintas” are to be believed – have been so much more vigorously exploited?
I asked Unigate if the products sold by their milkmen had been significantly expanded in recent years, as the threat of the cheaper supermarket pinta had become inexorably more serious.
Yes, I was told, some of the milkfloats now carry freezer boxes with frozen peas or even chickens inside, but such departures are more of a “trial” than a norm for Unigate’s 2,600 milkmen.
To be fair, there have been marketing link-ups – the most recent, with a juice manufacturer, offered customers the chance to win a holiday for Dad in honour of Father’s Day – but I don’t see either them, or those ridiculous dancing milk bottles in the TV ad, setting the jaded consumer a’quiver.
Perhaps more to the point, there have recently been link-ups with local newsagents, so that customers get to read the paper and open the new bottle of milk at roughly the same time.
Even this development, surely a blindingly obvious candidate for exploration some years ago, is still only at an “experimental” stage, a long way off being a regular service to the company’s dwindling customer base.
Sympathetic though I am to the plea that milkmen simply cannot compete with bulk supermarket prices (a four-pint supermarket carton costs about 26p a pint, while a Unigate single pint costs more like 40p), I can’t help feeling that the desperate initiatives of many dairies, including the West Country firm that is offering to collect and deliver dry-cleaning, are simply a matter of too little, too late.
While Royal Mail has fully exploited its position at the front door of Britain, competing for the right to carry anything from mail-order records to home shopping catalogues, milkmen have all but laid on their backs with their legs in the air.
If they can carry freezer boxes, why not insulated, warm ones? If milkmen are associated with mornings, why not carry hot rolls and croissants, even cooked breakfasts?
And rather than ignoring the increasing numbers of people who prefer the convenience of supermarket milk, why not deliberately park the float in each street between deliveries, giving non-customers the chance to buy milk or butter, and maybe even to restart their cancelled order?
After all, even the most efficient supermarket shopper runs out of milk or bread from time to time, all they need is a reminder that the milkman is a back-up.
If there are newspapers and magazines on each float, as well as hot rolls, so much the better.
When we examine the reasons why so many consumers have cancelled the milk order, it is clear price isn’t the whole answer.
The charge that milkmen simply come too late in the morning is not entirely fair, according to Unigate, which aims to get 95 per cent of its doorstep milk delivered before 8.30am. But the feeling persists that most milk is delivered just after most people leave for work.
The other regular beef, that early-bird milkmen have an annoying habit of calling for their money before sunrise and then being surprised when householders give them a mouthful, has failed to make an impact back at headquarters.
The reason I eventually stopped having milk delivered was only partly because the new milkman played Radio 1 at full volume and attempted, once too often, to invite himself (rather insolently) in for tea.
No, the real reason was that the milk itself more often resembled thin custard than milk, thicker than it should be, with a rather curdish appearance. It was explained to me that dairies landed with too much unsold milk routinely double, or even triple, pasteurise to keep it longer. Supermarket milk presumably undergoes the same process.
But over-processed or not, British consumers will continue to buy milk from whoever makes it most convenient for them.
It doesn’t have to be the supermarkets for all of us. With a bit more thought and ingenuity, Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West, could one day rise again.