Alexander Torrey lived much of his adult life following the same patterns of consumption that many other city dwellers do. When a household staple like hand soap or laundry detergent runs out, he’d place an order online and end up with a pile of cardboard boxes the size of his kitchen table at the end of the month.
“I started to think, ‘OK, there are 500 other people that live in this apartment building in Center City, and we all use hand soap, and we’re all probably throwing away these empty plastic bottles that have absolutely nothing wrong with them when they run out,” he said. “And a lot of us end up placing an order on Amazon or some other site and these packages just come in throughout the month. You don’t have to have an operations P.hD. to see that’s not working.”
The current Wharton School MBA candidate figured instead, there ought to be a closed loop system that could deliver all the household items someone might need, but in a way that could cut down on the wastefulness of traditional mail-in delivery. It could also eliminate some of the decision fatigue of having hundreds of brands of toothpaste or shampoo to choose from, he said.
So Torrey launched Mlkmn in 2019, an eco-friendly service that delivers household, personal care and shelf-stable pantry essentials to households across Center City. It works like this: When customers finish a given product, they leave the empty, reusable bottle out for the company to pick up. The company then drops off a new bottle filled with the same product — you know, as a milkman might have done way back when.
He first launched the service to a handful of apartment buildings around his ZIP code, with the thinking that those folks likely would have similar consumer habits to himself, but this month, expanded the service to any household in the ZIP codes 19103, 19102, 19107 or 19106.
A member can choose as many of the more than 50 items Mlkmn currently stocks, like paper towels, all-purpose cleaner, body lotion, mouthwash or toothpaste to include in their delivery. The company uses data science and information about a customer’s household and habits — two adults, no children, number of bathrooms, etc. — to predict consumption needs.
As a customer continuously uses the service, the analytics will get better and better at prediction, Torrey said. The goal is for Mlkmn to totally manage the restocking and delivery on autopilot.
“We want to make it so that you’re never thinking about these products,” Torrey said. “To you, it’s magic that the stuff you’re about to run out of arrives in reusable containers at your door.”
The team for the RealLIST Startups 2021 runner up is currently made up of Torrey, cofounder and COO Byungwoo Ko, and Head of Product Marketing and Customer Experience Jacqui Hehn, Growth Manager Blaise McComb and Product Ops Engineer Carly Ryan. They’ve begun fundraising with participation so far from local firm Red & Blue Ventures and the Dorm Room Fund supported by First Round Capital. Torrey didn’t share specific figures.
The company uses private label products, like Trader Joe’s or Costco’s Kirkland brand, and refillable, high-quality containers. Products like shampoo and household cleaners arrive in a glass or durable plastic containers that are sanitized and refilled for the next user to cut down on packaging waste.
And instead of being shipped to you, Torrey and his team members walk or bike your delivery to your front door, the density in Center City allowing for efficient routes from their micro-fulfillment center. A membership is $58 a year, or $5.95 a month, and prices are lower than many brand-name products; currently, a bottle of all-purpose cleaner is $1.80.
Amazon Prime and a local comparison, goPuff, cater more to the last-minute want or need. But the speed of delivery doesn’t usually allow for efficiency and often creates waste, Torrey said.
“We can make sure you never run out of something you need, but we’re doing it in a conscious way, on a schedule, every week or so,” Torrey said.
While the team is currently expanding their delivery radius to anywhere in those five ZIP codes, the founder said he’s hopeful to close an official seed round that will allow for some more tech hiring and expansion to other neighborhoods. Ideally, there could be micro-fulfillment centers across the city that would allow carbon-neutral delivery to many different neighborhoods.
Families shouldn’t have to bend over backwards in order to be more eco-conscious in their consumerism, Torrey said. In the first year of operation, the team estimates that they’ve saved about 40 pounds of waste from landfills and rivers for each member who signs up.
“This idea of sustainable convenience will be the future of commerce, especially in cities,” Torrey said. “How many Amazon trucks can be on the road? We clearly can’t continue to go this way.”