Once a fixture of the early morning landscape, making deliveries to about a third of all households in the United States, the milkman was all but extinct as the 20th century drew to a close, with sales down to a paltry 0.4% of the retail dairy industry. It appeared that the milkman would remain a bit of quaint nostalgia for those old enough to remember, and younger generations would never know home delivery that doesn’t arrive in an Amazon box.
Home milk delivery had been dying since the 1970′s. Improvements in refrigeration and pasteurization had extended the shelf life of dairy products allowing for less frequent purchases. The burgeoning supermarket industry had begun selling milk as a loss leader to lure customers into their stores. And Americans were drinking less milk.
The return of the milkman
Recently, this old-fashioned service has been making a comeback for reasons that can be personal, practical, and political. It’s a convenience for working parents who can strike a chore off their list, and for seniors who can lighten the load they lug home from the market. It fits with consumer interest in local products and small-scale producers who likely bottle in reusable and recyclable glass bottles and adhere to natural and organic dairy practices.
This is not the milkman of yesteryear.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that it is still almost always a man slinging the bottles. But smaller customer bases and larger areas of coverage demanded tweaks to much of the business model, so in addition to traditional dairy products, high-profit items like specialty meats, bread, jams, and cut flowers are often added to the orders.
Dairies are availing themselves of plenty of 21st century technology with online ordering, route optimization software that works with the delivery truck’s GPS , twittered delivery announcements, and hand-held scanners that track barcoded products and generate the customer accounts.
Businesses range from the small mom and pops with a few hundred local customers to Oberweis Dairy, which delivers to more than 50,000 households throughout Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Dairies in Maryland , Virgina, Washington, and Boston are reporting annual sales growth of more than 30% and massive waiting lists as they expand into new delivery areas. Even New York City has Manhattan Milk, although its trucks are more likely to drop the bottles with doormen than on doorsteps
You will pay a premium for the convenience, usually a delivery charge of around $3, but the milk itself probably costs no more than the supermarket price for organic dairy products. In exchange, your milk will be the freshest you can get and you will be doing your part for the local economy and the environment. And between the nostalgia, the cream on top, and the glass bottles, you’ll swear it just tastes better.