Sunday, November 15, 2009

In Praise of Home Delivery

A long, long time ago when I was a kid, we had a milkman.  Johnny the Milkman. We’d spot him making a delivery and run down the street to meet his truck.  Johnny the Milkman had a great boxy vehicle without passenger seats, and with both sliding doors left open to catch the summer breeze.  Ironically, a huge block of ice melting in the middle of the truck’s floor was meant to keep the glass bottles of milk and cream cold.   

Johnny the Milkman, in the days before OSHA and seatbelts and common sense, would let us jump on board and dangle our arms and legs out the passenger door for a few stops, dragging our Keds on the road as we drove from house to house.  Then, to complete the nightmare for our mothers, he’d give us an ice pick and we’d chip off a handful of cold, crunchy microbes to chew on.

There's nothing like a seven-year-old with an ice pick, dangling his legs out of a moving truck, sucking on dirty ice.

Every house in the neighborhood had a metal, barely-insulated milk box on the back steps. (The cover could be removed and used for home plate when necessary.)  Our mothers would communicate with Johnny the Milkman by taping a note to the box saying “Only one quart of milk this week but two dozen eggs please.”

It was a low tech and fail-safe way to insure delivery.

Not only did we receive a weekly visit from Johnny the Milkman, but Mr. Stafford-the-Fish-Man would come every Friday.  His truck was full of fresh fish on ice.  And then, each week, we had a bakery truck visit as well. 

I loved the old home delivery business model.  Good people came to our house every week with good stuff.  It was part of the rhythm of growing up.  

But then reality struck.  A Cumberland Farms appeared down the street (imagine a store dedicated to selling milk!).  Moms started working to support their kids, all of whom decided they had to go to college.  Home delivery went the way of the drive-in movie (which morphed into the mall cinema) and the backyard (which morphed into the lawn).

If you had been sitting in a business strategy meeting in, say, 1975 or 1985, trying to argue for the re-emergence of the home delivery model, you would have been sent off to write the marketing plan for crystal radio sets.  But if you’d been arguing the point in 1995 or later, you might have raised hundreds of millions of dollars and lost it all.

It’s a funny thing about good ideas, though--it's hard to keep them down.  Because now, it seems, home delivery is making a comeback.

There’s a Peapod truck that prowls our streets, dropping off groceries.  There’s a Zoots truck that makes the dry cleaning run all over town.  Last week my windshield cracked and the replacement was done in our driveway.  Not bad.

Even the milkman is making a comeback.  The Wall Street Journal recently tried four milk delivery services including Manhattan Milk, launched in April 2008 and featuring happy Amish cows, no rBST, short delivery routes, and a return to those eco-friendly glass bottles.

Maybe Manhattan Milk will even let you drag your Keds down 5th Avenue.

Meanwhile, President Obama and his administration continue to closely watch Microsoft's Mobile Medicine Service, providing home visits by doctors aimed at “radical prevention.”  Having a doctor visit your home won’t take you back to the 1960s (like Johnny the Milkman)--it’ll take you back to the 1930s. 

See what I mean about keeping good ideas down?

In a world of high energy prices, more telecommuting, an emphasis on outsourcing, and perhaps even a growing movement to trade work for time--home delivery could be the thing of the future.  I'm keeping an eye out the front window and will let you know.