Home shopping is becoming increasingly popular, with busy households wanting all manner of products, from milk and other fresh groceries to flowers, furniture and birthday presents delivered to the door. Who better to oblige than the milkman? They now carry much more than milk and a few trays of eggs. You can order pet food, washing powder, tea bags, tin foil and clingfilm. Other goods are seasonal: pot plants, bulbs, peat, growbags and Easter eggs in the spring; barbecues, charcoal and garden furniture in the summer.
The burgeoning business was boosted last week when the Government voiced its concern over inner-city families' lack of access to fresh food, and the need to provide more outlets. Such inner-city "food deserts", the public health minister Tessa Jowell said, were "a real problem and they give rise to other conditions. If you can't get the right food, people eat fast food or convenience food and often they may be chronically deficient in essential nutrients". The alternative to forcing people to travel several miles for produce, said the minister, was home delivery.
If the success of the modern milkman can be attributed to any particular causes, it is the very competition from supermarkets and the end of the milk monopoly which it was once thought would lead to his demise.
In 1980, 89 per cent of milk was bought over the doorstep, a figure that was down to 82 per cent in 1985, 68 per cent in 1990, and just 44 per cent in 1995, a year after the Milk Marketing Board's monopoly was abolished allowing farmers to sell direct to dairies or milk cooperatives.
But this has inspired milkmen to diversify. The result: milk sales are stabilising at around 40 per cent, although the National Dairymen's Association and the National Dairy Council both predict that more home shopping will require more milkmen during the next few years.
Simon Bates, liquid milk manager for the National Dairymen's Association (NDA), the industry's trade body, said: "There is a growing trend towards home shopping at the moment - all the big supermarkets are spending a lot of money trialing it. Also, technology is making it easier with credit cards, the Internet and new electronic payment machines. And dairy companies are becoming more adept at providing a good home-shopping service for the customer. They have already got the floats and the market and reservoirs of public goodwill."
Among the services now being offered to shoppers is a catalogue, Home and Life, from which customers can order direct from their local dairy and receive the goods next morning with no delivery charge. A lot of areas are still experimenting with these products and reporting a positive response from the doorstep. In Merseyside and Nottinghamshire, Dale Farm Dairies has made many products standard items, so great was the demand during their trials.
Alan Perkins, the singing Christian milkman who delivers to the television celebrities of Chiswick, west London, and keeps them informed of milk facts and his daughter's jokes in a hand-written newsletter, is no stranger to goodwill. He is greeted each morning by scores of customers on their way to work or doing the school run as he journeys the suburban streets in his electric float.
Mr Perkins is one of a growing band of self-employed milkmen who buy franchises from their dairies allowing them to hire floats and work particular routes. But he is concerned for the future and hopes that home delivery of other goods will save his profession.
He said: "Angela Rippon was one of my customers but she moved. And John Hurt. The supermarkets are still pricing us out on milk and I can't see that changing."
In Shepshed, near Loughborough in Leicestershire, Katie Heap, also known as the Pink Lady, covers her 500-household round in a garish, painted float. "Things got bad in terms of doorstep sales, but I hope this new trend of home shopping will pick things up," she said. "The goodwill is definitely there.
"It's not like other jobs. I don't feel like a milkwoman, I feel like a member of the families that I deliver to. I've seen kids grow up, go to school, and others get married. It makes you feel like a bit of an agony aunt sometimes. I'd never give this job up, there's too much to see. I've seen all sorts while 'going milking' as we call it: people making love outside in the middle of the night, people walking around naked ... Shepshed can be wild at four in the morning."
However advanced the industry gets, and whatever the future holds for the milkman or woman, one thing is certain not to change: milk floats will never go faster than 15mph.