Evolution of the Shopping Cart

June 9, 2017
A Look Inside the Shopping Cart’s Evolution

With an estimated 1.25 million new shopping carts manufactured every year, it’s hard to imagine the world without them rattling down our supermarket aisles. It might be even harder to imagine that these grocery store staples just turned 80-years-old! In honor of the shopping cart’s 8th decade which passed this June 4th, let’s take a look at how this invention has developed and continues to change before consumers’ eyes.

Before shopping carts, grocery store customers solely relied on wooden or wire baskets to transport their desired items to the checkout counter. However, most household shoppers of that bygone era were women who could only carry these baskets before they got too heavy. This limited the amount of goods that could be purchased in one shopping trip. One savvy businessman, Sylvan Goldman, sought to alter this system in the hopes of streamlining convenience and increasing revenue for his local Oklahoman Humpty Dumpty grocery chain.

Taking inspiration from a simple folding chair, Goldman is credited with designing the first shopping cart prototype in 1937, at first dubbed a “folding basket carrier.” The first shopping cart was actually a wooden frame that could be folded and unfolded with ease. Five inches wide, these frames took up very little space when folded, which was a key point for getting other stores to use Goldman’s creation. The idea was that shoppers would unfold a frame and set a basket into the holders above and below each other.

Initially, Goldman’s shopping cart was unsuccessful with consumers. Even though there was a beautiful woman stationed at the entrance of his stores to assist with cart setup, many customers refused to use the cart, except for the elderly. Men of the time did not want to appear weak by admitting they needed help carrying their grocery baskets, while women insisted they had pushed enough baby carriages and did not want to be provided another for shopping. However, this didn’t stop Goldman. He hired men and women to pretend to shop at his stores using the carts, so when anybody refused one at the entrance, the greeter could explain how everybody else was using them.

The tactic of  peer pressure proved fruitful. By 1940, the carts had become so popular that grocery stores started widening their aisles and expanding their checkout counters to accommodate the increase in items purchased per shopping trip. The next shopping cart design came from Orla Watson in 1947. Now, both baskets were attached to the cart frame with hinged backs, allowing for compact storage. Though popular with shoppers, this new shopping cart was criticized by check-out girls who had to bend their backs for hours retrieving food from the bottom basket. In response to this, Watson altered the design so the top basket would fold up while a hydraulic platform lifted the bottom basket to the checkout counter.

The big-basket shopping cart we know and love was introduced in the 1950s. Since then, not much about the design has changed besides the addition of baby seats, drink holders, plastic handles, even bigger baskets, and upgraded wheels. However, with new technology at our disposal, there are innovative ideas for taking the shopping cart into the future. For example, Springboard/Mercatus created the Concierge System, which is a LCD touchscreen attached to the handle of a shopping cart. The system includes a map of the store, an item locator, and a catalogue of items on sale relative to the shopper’s location in the store. The Concierge System also allows shoppers to swipe a membership card to see items they have purchased in the past that are on sale that week. Another nifty feature includes barcode scanning.

Today, designers are also trying to come up with better ways for shoppers to get around in big-box stores closer to 250,000 square feet. The UNIT shopping cart is built with a retractable platform, steering wheel, and rechargeable motor. Like the Concierge System, this design includes a LCD screen that assists shoppers with finding specific items. As if those features weren’t enough, the barrel-shaped UNIT cart is lined with a nylon net that catches items, sinking as more items are added. When shoppers remove items at checkout, the net starts to expand towards the opening of the cart, so no one has to bend their back to retrieve groceries from the bottom of their cart.

Large corporations are already starting to dabble with the latest shopping cart innovations and implement them in storefronts. In 2016, Wal-Mart filed a patent for self-driving shopping carts. Though the design remains conventional, these carts have an IoT device that is connected to a network of sensors that matches inventory with customer needs. Similarly, Acuity Brands (mostly known for LED lighting) invented a wireless tracking system for shopping carts. The tracking system uses Bluetooth technology for carts and ceiling lights to communicate with one another through radio frequencies. In a completely different vein of innovation, Target recently transformed its shopping carts into Mario Kart simulators upon the release of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.

After 80 years of service and improvement, the shopping cart shows no sign of slowing down or retiring. With digital technology now at our fingertips, it will be crucial for retailers and advertisers to embrace the shopping cart’s evolution. What will the new shopping experience look like and how can your business make itself viable in this increasingly intelligent market?


Extra Reading / Reference: http://mentalfloss.com/article/26470/brief-history%E2%80%94and-future%E2%80%94-shopping-cart

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