Tools of the Trade: In 1936, Sylvan Goldman had a radical idea: What if he put wheels on a shopping basket?

Retail store staple. Barometer for human decency. Germ magnet. The shopping cart contains multitudes.
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· 4 min read

There are devices in the retail world we take for granted. Let’s stop doing that.

Shopping cart

  • Patented: 1939
  • First patent holder: Sylvan Goldman

Basket case: In the beginning, there were baskets. The first self-service grocery store, Piggly Wiggly, opened in Memphis in 1916. It was a radical departure for shoppers, who, until then, had handed grocery lists to clerks, who’d gather the items from behind the counter. But at the Piggly Wiggly, shoppers were transformed into Little Red Riding Hoods, walking the aisles with wooden baskets in the crooks of their arms.

Piggly Wiggly became a chain, and two decades later, Sylvan Goldman owned a few in Oklahoma City. In the 1930s, home refrigerators began to gain popularity, with only 8% of homes having one at the beginning of the decade and 44% by the end, which enabled consumers to buy more groceries without fear of spoilage. But Goldman began to notice that when a basket was full, shoppers beelined it for the cash registers, even if they might have had more on their lists.

“If there were some way we could give that customer two baskets to shop with and still have one hand free to shop, we could do considerably more business.” Goldman later recalled (as the New York Times reported).

Into the fold: Inspiration came, in 1936, from a folding chair. Goldman figured one basket could go about where the seat was, another below, and that wheels could be added.

When the carts were first introduced in stores, shoppers were underwhelmed. Goldman told CBS in 1977 that he went into one store the next day, and “not a one was using a cart.” They only began to catch on, Goldman said, after he’d hired women of all ages to walk around his stores using them.

He founded Folding Carrier Company, to manufacture and sell shopping carts. The patent for his design was granted in 1939.

Goldman’s contraption unfolded (like the folding chair that inspired it) and baskets were inserted into it. But in 1946, inventor Orla Watson filed a patent application for non-folding grocery carts whose rear panels were hinged, allowing them to nest together to save space. After Watson was granted a patent in 1949, Goldman incorporated the hinge design into his carts and paid Watson royalties.

The grocery cart became commonplace so fast that in 1940, just four years after Goldman’s invention, it was on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post.

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Cart blanche: Shoppers using a cart in mass-market stores buy an average of 7.2 items, compared to 6.1 for the cartless, according to a study by America’s Research Group.

But many forgo them.

  • In supermarkets, only 18.8% of shoppers opt for a cart, while 35% use baskets and nearly half (46.3%) use nothing, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of Business Research.

Smarten up: Smart carts being piloted at major grocers—including Kroger, Albertsons, and Whole Foods—scan items as they’re placed in carts, then accept payment (sayonara, self-checkout).

As with e-commerce, the carts also make recommendations and find coupons. For grocers, they provide crucial data about how shoppers navigate stores.

Proceed with caution: A 2011 study of 85 shopping cart handles in four states found that 72% had fecal bacteria—and at higher levels than are typically found in bathrooms, according to the researchers.

Another study found that in 2017, children aged five and younger accounted for 19,000 injuries involving shopping carts that were severe enough to require emergency-room treatment. Most (12,000) were the result of falls from carts.

Cart and soul: The Shopping Cart Theory loads carts with a lot more than groceries. In 2020, a viral Twitter post suggested that returning or not returning the cart after using it “determines whether a person is a good or bad member of society."

Because there’s no law against returning the cart, “you must return the shopping cart out of the goodness of your own heart,” the post continued. “You must return the shopping cart because it is the right thing to do. Because it is correct.”

Cart Narcs, a YouTube channel with 415,000 subscribers, features videos where shoppers who don’t return their carts are confronted and often become unhinged (In one video, the confronted person can be seen drawing a gun.) The videos collectively have more than 52.3 million views.

Training wheels: But shopping-cart etiquette can be instilled long before consumers have credit cards. Mini carts for kids are popular at supermarkets all over the world, and Sheila Williams Ridge, who teaches early-childhood education at University of Minnesota, told The Atlantic she thought that was a good thing.

It teaches children “important life skills” including “making selections, negotiating, planning, [and] courtesy,” Williams Ridge said.—AAN

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