I've seen the future - a milk float

The delivery of the daily pinta right to our doorstep puts this nation leagues ahead of our rivals
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The Independent Culture
BRITAIN HAS a secret weapon in modern economic warfare, a smart missile. Here are some clues to its identity: no other country has it; each one of us probably comes into contact with it, however fleetingly, every day; and it's electric.

It is the great British milkfloat. The delivery of the daily pinta right to our doorstep puts us as a nation several leagues ahead in the race to cash in on e-commerce and the Internet bonanza.

I would never have given this a moment's thought if a neighbour, now a prosperous investment banker, hadn't mentioned that he had passed his stockbroking exams thanks to studying on the float while he worked as a milkman.

Yet it is not as a slowly trundling platform for improving the skills of the workforce that the unique British institution of the milk round is so valuable. Rather, it gives Great Britain plc a head start in the efficient delivery of goodies ordered over the internet. For the promised digital boom is going to depend entirely on getting the goods to the people. The hi-tech promise of online shopping can only be fulfilled by the very low-tech business of moving things from one place to another.

It has become a bit of a commonplace amongst management consultants to say that business success depends on communication and networking. But they leave the details a bit vague, or they imply that the communicating is all going to take place over the computer. Of course, some of it can, but the Internet is mostly going to be about matching consumers' wishes directly with the businesses who want to sell them satisfaction.

Instead of going out to the shops, we can tap into virtual stores from the comfort of home. Books, compact discs, computers, clothes, groceries, cheeses, mountaineering equipment - already there is a huge range of goods that can be bought online. In management jargon, the Internet revolution is all about "disintermediation" or cutting out the middleman. But what is bad news for retailers is going to be good news for delivery services.

Of course, like other countries, we already have a postal service. Every day postmen and women pass every door in the land. And they do it inefficiently, grumpily and when you are out at work. The catch with almost every postal service is that they remain state monopolies without the private sector's constant incentive to become more efficient.

Yet the private delivery services scooting around in smart vans are little better. For reasons I've never fathomed, they, too, are inefficient, grumpy and also only call when you are out - and they are fearfully expensive to boot. The upshot with many of the existing delivery services is that you totter home from work to find a crumpled card behind the door inviting you to join a queue of people collecting parcels from a distant depot on an industrial estate on Saturday between 10 and 12, just when everybody is at their most frantic trying to go to the supermarket and library, unload the washing machine and ferry the kids to their football lesson.

Some stores have set up their own delivery services instead. Smart Tesco vans bring the weekly shop to the door, for example. They can even manage to deliver on Saturday mornings. However, for most retailers the creation of a fleet of dedicated vehicles will be dauntingly expensive. They will want to contract out the delivery of their goods to another business.

The real beauty of turning milkmen into an all-round delivery service, however, is not so much that they are cheerful (heaven knows why, at five in the morning). It is not that theirs is already an efficient and very competitive business, with two or three rivals on every route (I know this because the baby and I watch them out of the window). It is that they will drop off your parcel before you wake up. What a selling point - order online in the afternoon, open the package before you go to work the next day.

Even better, milk floats are electric vehicles without nasty emissions. They're clean and green. Unlike the parcel firms, they do not add to the general urban congestion because they are already on our roads at a time when nobody else is up. Britain's milkmen mean the UK is poised to reap the economic benefits of the e-commerce boom with a cheap, competitive and efficient system of getting the goods to the people. Every competitor economy will have to create the same sort of system from scratch.

I have never met my milkman. But I bet, just like my neighbour in the City, he's reading an economic textbook as he glides by.