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Milk floats ride to the rescue of locked-down British households | World news

The humble milkman – a regular sight on most British streets throughout the 20th century – was almost consigned to the history books by the rise of the supermarkets.

But now, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, these dairy deliverers on their electric floats are busier than ever as they try to keep up with newfound demand for their services.

Dairies are reporting a boom in customer numbers, with some recruiting hundreds of milkmen and women to help deal with the extra workload as shoppers try to reduce, or forgo, their trips to supermarkets.

Scott Hughes, owner of Jackson’s Dairies in Stockport, which sources all its milk from farmers in the Peak District, said he first noticed an upsurge in orders when the virus hit China in January. Since then, the “phones have not stopped ringing”.

“It was just phenomenal – all of a sudden we were inundated,” said Hughes. “Our doorstep canvasser went out and within 40 minutes he had signed up 30 new customers – this would normally take him days.”

Since the outbreak, Hughes’s firm, which has been delivering milk since the 1950s, has seen an 83% rise in business – signing up more than 800 new customers in two weeks. Another 300 customers are on a waiting list.

“Over the years, we experienced a steady decline and when we looked at it, it was always to do with price because we struggled to compete with supermarket prices,” Hughes said.

Margaret Lees’s farming family, delivering milk since 1958, has seen their orders double in recent weeks.

Margaret Lees’s farming family, delivering milk since 1958, has seen orders double in recent weeks. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“But with this virus, and also a growing concern about the environment, we are starting to see a shift in the way people shop.”

He added: “Customers have been ringing 24/7 and it is not just elderly people, there is a complete variety – young people, people with children. We are just hoping when this is all over those customers will stay with us because they will have felt the benefits of having milk delivered to their home.”

Meanwhile, the country’s largest milk and groceries doorstep delivery service, Milk & More, is currently suspending new customer sign-ups, after reporting an increase of 25,000 customers. It has begun a recruitment campaign for 100 milk deliverers.

The firm’s chief executive, Patrick Müller, said: “We have been at the heart of the communities in which we serve for decades, but potentially we have never had such an important role as we do now in this current health crisis.”

Colin Henderson, from Chester-le-Street in Durham, who has been delivering milk for 40 years, said: “The milk has gone berserk.”

Henderson said 60% of his customers were pensioners, and they enjoyed having regular contact with him. He is now wearing plastic gloves when he drops his milk, shakes and juices off on the doorstep.

He added: “I have got a pile of notes from customers and my round is taking an extra hour every day now. The dairy I work with said it is just manic … I just hope that after this is finished that people stay with us.”

Britain’s remaining milk delivery companies have been forced to adapt in recent years, and online orders have replaced rolled-up notes inside used bottles. Many have diversified by adding grocery items to deliveries, from bread, bacon and eggs to toilet roll and even compost.

Trade association Dairy UK said 89% of all milk bought in Britain in 1980 was on the doorstep but many firms closed because of changing consumer habits, and cheaper competition from supermarkets.

In the mid-1990s, just 30% of milk was still delivered, falling to 2.8% in 2015 with many of the customers mainly elderly people.

Growing consumer concern about plastic waste has led to a gentle increase in demand in recent years for doorstep deliveries of the reusable bottles. But the slight upward curve has now become mountainous.

Dr Judith Bryans, chief executive of Dairy UK, said many of its members had seen huge increases in demand for milk deliveries as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

“Many have taken on as many new customers as they are able to, and are working round the clock to get milk to as many homes as they can,” she said.

“We know that milkmen and women are providing vital lifelines to older or more vulnerable consumers who are not able to leave their homes due to the restrictions, providing milk and other goods to those who need it, safely.”

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