Once a relic, milkmen see flood of clients in the UK
LEEDS, England - The problem, for Peter Critchley, is that the phone just keeps ringing. At least 30 calls a day, every day. Then there is the online backlog: He has 100 more requests on his website to wade through every evening. He already has added some 600 new customers, and more just keep coming.
Suddenly, it seems, everyone wants a milkman.
The surge has been going on for a week or so, Critchley said. As the British government’s measures to slow the coronavirus’ spread have grown incrementally tighter, as towns and cities have fallen quiet, as shops have closed, and communities — mostly — started to follow officials’ advice to stay at home, more and more people have turned to Critchley and others like him.
It is one less reason to venture outside, one way of avoiding snaking queues and empty shelves at supermarkets, at least one essential that can be guaranteed.
“At the moment, it’s just about managing,” Critchley said. He has been running the business — I.W. Critchley & Son, in the northern town of Chorley — since he took over from his father, the founder, some 40 years ago.
It is, he said, a “small, family firm.” At 67, and theoretically nearing retirement, he now describes himself as the “office boy.” He leaves deliveries to his sons, Robert, James and Richard, working from midnight until around 9 a.m. every day.
For a long time, that was enough, but that has changed starkly in the course of the past week. A month or so ago, Critchley had a little more than 4,300 registered customers. Now, that number has ticked north of 5,000.
“It has been huge,” he said. “We have had people calling up to ask for jobs. Normally we’d just say no. Now we have to think, ‘Do we need someone else?’ ”
The story is the same across the north of England. Almost all milk delivery services contacted by the New York Times have placed notices on their websites or added voicemail messages warning prospective customers about the high level of demand; many have updated their Facebook pages to thank people for their patience.
Robert Orton, a milkman in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, has seen such a spike in interest that, reluctantly, he is having to turn away prospective customers. “I can only take new people if they live on streets that I already go down,” he said. “Otherwise, I just can’t do it. It’s been mad.”
In Colne, a town that straddles the border between Lancashire and Yorkshire, Simon Mellin is searching for 10 new delivery vans and 20 new drivers. The company he and three friends founded in 2018 — the Modern Milkman, an entirely digital platform — has seen its revenue double in four days.
Only part of that is due to new customers: Before the pandemic hit, around 9,000 people were using Mellin’s platform. “At the end of today, it will be around 14,000 or 15,000,” he said Tuesday. But established customers are ordering more, too.
“People need more milk, and they want things like vegetable boxes, too,” Mellin said. “They are buying all their groceries.”
For an industry that seemed, for a long time, to be edging toward irrelevance, it is a seismic shift. Until recently, milkmen were seen as something between a luxury and a vestige of a forgotten past: something people had fond memories of as children but not really necessary in the modern world.