Dairies shouldn't lose their bottle

Computerised shopping could give the milk float a new lease of life, writes David Bowen
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FOR nine months in 1975, when I was 19 and waiting to go to university, I was a milkman. I got up between 3.30 and 4.30 every morning and spent up to 12 hours a day plonking bottles of milk on the doorsteps of south Wiltshire. The local earl had 14,000 cows but still needed 10 pints of double cream (I always wondered why). Most people were content with a pint or two and, as milkmen do, I kept in my head a string of computer- like digits, denoting the number of bottles required by each house. To me, it was not Somerset Avenue, but 112510111323411.

I wonder what Somerset Avenue would be now: 011200100030002, I expect. In 1979, according to the National Dairy Council, 50,000 milkmen delivered to 90 per cent of households; now 20,000 bring milk to 50 per cent. Brussels stopped us keeping shop prices artificially high, and supermarkets responded by using milk as a loss leader to tempt customers in. A pint of milk in Tesco is 22p; my milkman charges 41p. Were it not for my loyalty to the float, by now I might well be another "0".

Last week Northern Foods, which owns Express Dairies, said it was cutting its milk bottling capacity by 40 per cent, and its dairy staff by more than 1,000. It blames the abolition of the Milk Marketing Board, which has widened the gap between the doorstep and the supermarket shelf further. It is only a matter of time, surely, before Ernie the milkman rides off into the west for what will be the last time.

Well, maybe. But if he does, it will be because the dairy companies have failed to grasp an opportunity. Milk deliveries as such may all but disappear but general food deliveries should more than make up for them. In 10 or 15 years' time, the streets of our cities will - or at least should - be whirring with electric vehicles; home delivery should be one of the fastest-growing sources of employment. Ernie has a grand future, albeit as an employee of Tesco's.

Why? Because retailers - particularly food sellers, who are notably slick - are always looking for a way of getting an edge on their rivals. This century they have done that by moving to self-service, by becoming bigger and cheaper, by becoming more convenient - at least if you have a car - and most recently by offering an absurdly large choice. Each step was taken first by one company trying to get ahead, and then was imitated by everyone else. The competition is still as fierce as ever. What can retailers do next?

Step, or rather ride, forward the Pizza Pan, Curry Cabin and Mr Liu. All are restaurants near me that offer a very efficient home delivery service, for no extra charge. The pizza people started it, because pizzas come from America and have been delivered there for years. But the others piled in, particularly during the last recession, because they were trying to get that edge: once one curry house offered home delivery, they all had to.

Northern Foods milkmen will, its chairman says, now be carrying frozen foods as well as milk. Perhaps this will be enough to needle the supermarkets into action. One chain will offer home delivery, and the others will have to follow. There is nothing new about this idea. Some small village grocery shops still send a man or woman to pick up your order book and then deliver food to your door. Hawkers were knocking on front doors when high streets were sewage-infested ruts. Until the 1930s, all sorts of tradesmen clipclopped around town; even in the 1960s, greengrocers vans were common, and there are still a handful around. In America, the grocery delivery, carefully packed in a brown paper bag, is still an institution.

Apart from the competitive urge, there are three reasons why now is a good time for supermarkets to offer a free or cheap home delivery service. First, it would be a wonderful service to the less mobile, and therefore good PR. This may sound like an implausible motive for a bunch of rapacious capitalists, but do not dismiss it lightly. David Sainsbury, Mr Big of the grocers, is a man with a social conscience, who used to finance the Social Democrats. He is worried about the effect his out-of-town superstores are having on high streets. If he says go to home delivery, Messrs Tesco and Safeway will have to follow.

Second, it is environmentally friendly (good PR again). Pizza deliveries tend to come by moped - quattro stagione Hondas with precarious carrier boxes are already a common metropolitan sight. Supermarkets would need something bigger and less annoying: something like a milk float, a massive load carrier and environmentally a darling. It produces no fumes and makes at most a soft whine. Even its modest speed has advantages. One electric vehicle delivering to 20 houses would replace 20 internal combustion engines visiting the superstore: the advantage is obvious.

Third, the missing link that has up to now made the whole business impossible is about to drop into place. At the moment, there is no easy way to tell the supermarket what you want. Imagine dictating a great long grocery list down the phone - even if you could get through, you cannot know what is available, what is on offer, what the prices are, especially of fruit and veg, which can change from day to day.

The answer to this is the Information Superhighway. In a few years' time, we will have television-cum-computers sitting in our front rooms. They will be connected, probably by our local cable television company, to central computers which in turn will be linked to the supermarkets' own databases.

You will be able to switch on your telly, select the Sainsbury channel, see prices and availability and use your handset to click on the items you want. At the "checkout", you will key in a code number, which will debit your bank account. An hour or two later your doorbell will ring. If you want the goods in a hurry, you could pay for an express service.

This is not a far-off fantasy: anyone with cable now is only a hundred yards or so from an optical fibre link that can carry all the information needed to make the system work. The cable companies need to make the final link to houses, and to talk to the supermarkets. The technical problems would be trivial.

As a result maybe, glory be, out-of-town supermarkets will be knocked down and parks established on their foundations. There will still, of course, be demand from people who want to squeeze their bread or try their clothes before they buy, but there will be places where they can do that. They will be called shops, and they will be located in places called high streets. It may sound utopian but it could happen. The milkman will ride again. And yes, there was a list of bored housewives in the dairy I worked for. I never saw it.