The rapid grocery delivery service has launched in New Zealand, promising your food in an hour or less. But as Shanti Mathias discovers, that luxury has real social consequences.
Milkrun has already failed once. The rapid delivery grocery company launched in Australia in 2021 with distinctive blue and white branding, delivering groceries in ten minutes or less to inner city suburbs. It promptly got hyped in business magazines and received heaps of money from investors, which subsidised customers to order cheaply, over and over.
But the dream of groceries appearing at your door without you having to venture outside is expensive to provide at scale, and it didn’t last long. Only operating in Australia, Milkrun closed in April this year – following the downfall of equivalents Send, Jokr and others.
In Australia, Milkrun had been an alternative to very profitable supermarket chains. So perhaps it’s not surprising that after the company collapsed, Woolworths (formerly known as Countdown in Aotearoa), purchased the brand a few weeks later. Now operating through Woolworths supermarket, Milkrun launched in New Zealand in July; the Australia and New Zealand operations are separate, but they share information. The curly Woolworths logo appears on its bold blue branding now; it’s so small it’s easy to miss.
In New Zealand, Milkrun is still in launch mode. Street advertising offers vouchers, and Countdown’s self-checkout machines offer digital discount codes while you tiredly beep biscuits and beans. It’s an appealing promise: the supermarket coming to you, quickly (if you live in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch or Dunedin, that is).
Rapid delivery is an appealing business proposition, especially if you’re a supermarket chain in a concentrated market hoping to increase your customer base. “The gap in the market is convenience – those last-minute meal preparation opportunities, light snacks,” says Mark Wolfenden, the director of Coundown’s digital and customer experience branch, CountdownX.
Wolfenden is keen to frame Milkrun as a service customers are demanding. “We want to give more time back to customers to do what they love,” he insists repeatedly through our interview. But time doesn’t come from nowhere. Someone has to pay for it.
Quinn Allison, who works in marketing/communications and lives in Tāmaki Makaurau, felt snackish the first time she ordered from Milkrun, whose ads she had seen on Instagram. She bought some wasabi chickpea snacks, cranberry juice and yoghurt, all on special, and some ingredients for dinner, like chicken tenderloins and lemons. “It’s so fast,” she says. “Every order has been perfect, actually.” She’s ordered four or five times since, appreciating the personal touches – like a complimentary bag of chips included in the order.
But most items available on Milkrun are more expensive than standard orders from Countdown, which tend to be available the next day with regular delivery. There’s also a flat delivery fee of $7 per order. “It’s definitely a luxury,” Allison says – one she acknowledges she can afford because she has a corporate job, no kids, and pays rent to her partner, who owns a home.
“We’re very focused on that competitive delivery fee,” Wolfenden says. The business is integrated into Countdown’s pre-existing ordering system; Milkrun orders are simply pushed to the top of the queue for grocery pickers to pluck food off the shelves of available supermarkets. The range is slightly more limited, with about 10,000 items available, including items you can’t order for next-day delivery (hot chickens are particularly popular).
The speed is achieved more in the delivery: instead of being delivered in a big Countdown truck, Milkrun orders are handed over to Uber drivers, who take the items to the customer’s house. On average, Wolfenden says, the process takes 31 minutes, half of the guaranteed hour.
But Milkrun’s model, using Uber drivers rather than directly employed workers, has concerned labour activists. While workers in supermarkets are largely unionised employees with set contracts, including employees who drive Countdown-branded trucks, Milkrun delivering with Uber means that isn’t the case for all workers. “When you see the [Milkrun] advertising, it’s not clear that it’s a Woolworths operation, and that they’re using Uber,” says Anita Rosetreter, the strategic project lead at FIRST Union, who has worked to get Uber drivers recognised as employees. “Food delivery might be a relatively new part of the economy, but it’s still real work.”
Rosentreter is working on a letter to Woolworths to raise the union’s concerns with the Milkrun model. “They’ve made the decision to launch this new service with their eyes open to what Uber is,” she says. “Uber is famous for lawbreaking, paying below minimum wage, evading company taxes, risking health and safety.”
Even if Uber are technically paying the drivers delivering Milkrun orders, Rosentreter says that Woolworths are responsible for the driver’s employment, and so should be responsible for their wellbeing. Branding Milkrun separately to their other services conceals this connection, and makes it harder to tell what one person’s convenience means for workers.
“It’s this powerhouse company, one side of the supermarket duopology, alongside another powerhouse Silicon Valley company, worth billions of dollars, backed by venture capital,” Rosentroter says, “and because they are so blatant about lawbreaking, Uber has a competitive advantage.”
Wolfenden says the Milkrun app is attracting new customers, not simply migrating people who would have shopped from Countdown anyway. “Countdown is focused on how to deliver convenience and still maintain that love of fresh food,” he says. But that’s easy for a representative of a supermarket chain to say; a cynic could interpret Countdown’s move into rapid delivery as a bid to increase its niche in a small market with only one major competitor.
Milkrun is entirely reliant on the real world: people growing food, workers processing and packaging it in factories, truck drivers ferrying it around the country; workers packing shelves while others weave through stores following instructions from a computer. But the brand itself is a digital one, blank and seamless. On its Instagram there is no outdoor space, no food in the ground or drivers on the road; just cute videos of food made from supermarket ingredients and memes inviting users to guess where it will be launching next. The people in the images and videos are alone, relishing in the convenience of not having to pop back to the supermarket – because someone else has done it for them.
As easy as it is to feed yourself without venturing beyond your front gate, having your food delivered means you lose something, too. Research shows that supermarkets can be crucial social spaces where customers can engage with people beyond their own spheres, even if the interactions are fleeting. The increased technology in supermarkets, including click and collect and self-checkout, allows you to avoid interacting with the teenage cashier, the woman drifting through the beer aisle, the toddler collapsed on the floor begging for cocoa puffs.
That’s the world inside the supermarket. Beyond its pale walls, hard work has turned seeds into food and coconuts into cream, and all that abundance has been delivered to one enormous room close to you. With Milkrun, you pay to tap a device, and see none of the messy evidence.