A Brief History—and Future—of the Shopping Cart


They're everywhere - in almost every grocery store, department store, and bulk item superstore. Depending on where you live in the world, you might call them carts, trolleys, carriages, buggies, or wagons. The guys from MTV's Jackass practically built their careers on them. Yet most of us have never really considered just where the ubiquitous shopping cart came from. Come along as we take a trip through the fascinating history – and possible future – of the common grocery cart.

Let's Get Rolling
Sylvan Goldman had a problem. As was customary for grocery stores in 1936, his Standard/Piggly Wiggly locations in Oklahoma City supplied shoppers with a small wooden or wire basket for them to carry as they wandered up and down the aisles. Once the basket got too heavy, though, customers headed for the check-out line, a situation Goldman wanted to avoid. To keep them buying, Goldman was determined to figure out a way to make heavy baskets more manageable.

One night, he happened to look at a wooden folding chair and inspiration struck.

He placed one shopping basket on the seat and another under the chair, then envisioned wheels on the legs, and a handle on the back. He was on to something. It took a few months of tinkering, but Goldman eventually settled on a design that was convenient and flexible. To use a cart, you took a folded-up frame from a row of them stacked side-by-side. In their folded form, they were only about 5” wide, so storage space was minimal — a factor Goldman knew would come into play for his invention to be accepted in other stores. Once unfolded, the shopper would grab two baskets and place them in two holders on the frame - one above and one below. When they were done shopping, the check-out girl simply put both baskets on the counter and rang everything up.

Unfortunately, the big debut of his big invention was a great big flop. Despite having a pretty young woman at the entrance to help customers set up the carts, the only people interested in using them were the elderly. Men were too proud to admit they needed help carrying a basket, and some younger women said they had pushed enough baby buggies that they weren't going to use one for shopping, too. Distraught, Goldman hatched another plan – he hired attractive men and women to push carts around inside the store and pretend to shop. When real customers came through the doors and refused the cart, the young woman at the entrance looked back into the store and said, “Why? Everyone else is using them.” Never underestimate the power of peer pressure.

By 1940, only three years after they were introduced, carts had become so popular, entire grocery stores were being designed around them with wider aisles and larger check-out counters to hold all the food people were buying.

The shopping cart we all know - with one big basket – was first introduced in the 1950s. Aside from a few tweaks here and there, like the baby seat, drink holders, the plastic handle, even bigger baskets, and upgraded wheels, the shopping cart's basic design hasn't changed much since then. But that doesn't mean that shopping cart technology has grown stagnant. Great minds out there are working on new ideas to take the shopping cart into the future.

One company, Springboard/Mercatus, has developed the Concierge system - a small LCD touchscreen attached to the handle that can make your shopping trip just a little bit easier. The screen not only shows you a map of the store, including where items are located in each aisle, but will also track where you are within the store to tell you what items are on sale in the aisle you're currently walking down. If you have a membership card for a store, you could swipe your card on the cart and it will tell you what items you've purchased before that are on sale this week. While you do your shopping, you can scan the barcodes of items as you place them in the cart and they'll automatically be added to your card number (and removed from the store's inventory). When you're finished, you simply hand the check-out person your membership card, they swipe it, and you swipe your debit card to pay for everything in your cart.

As the size of big-box stores approaches 250,000 square feet, many designers are looking for better ways for shoppers to get around. One possible idea is the UNIT shopping cart by Liubov Kurzanova. The cart features a retractable platform for the shopper to stand on while they use the steering wheel to scoot around the store on a rechargeable electric motor. The control panel also features an LCD screen to, among other things, help shoppers find items within the store. But the really big innovation of the UNIT is the barrel-shaped body with a flexible nylon net inside. When a shopper adds items to the net, it starts to droop further into the barrel. Once they get to the check-out and start removing items, the net starts to retract and come closer to the cart's opening, meaning the shopper never has to bend over to retrieve their purchases.

Fetch, Cart, Fetch!
How does a blind person shop at the grocery store? A canine assistant can't tell where the salsa is on the shelf, and most stores don't have braille on every price tag. It's one of the few things a blind person can't do for themselves nowadays. But soon, even this impossible task could be accomplished thanks to the RobotCart produced by Vladimir Kulyukin and students at Utah State University. On the cart's handle is a braille listing of all of the items in the store, each with its own code number. The shopper can punch in the number of the product on a keypad and, thanks to Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags hanging on the shelves, the robot will automatically start rolling towards the item in the store, giving voice instructions along the way to help the shopper follow along. To avoid obstacles – like a new store display or another shopper – the cart uses laser range finders to help it “see” the path ahead and adjust its route accordingly.

Stop, Thief!
Carts generally cost between $100 - $150 each, so losing them to thieves is not something a store can ignore. Almost every major city has one or more companies whose sole business is to retrieve and return abandoned carts to their rightful owners for a small fee. But many stores have taken steps to keep carts from disappearing in the first place with the installation of a system by Carttronics, a company out of San Diego. Their Cart Anti-theft Protection System (CAPS) is a plastic cap that slams down over one of the front wheels whenever a cart crosses over a magnetic barrier in the parking lot, essentially stopping it cold. An employee can unlock the wheel remotely or with a special electronic key.

The Dangers of Shopping
Shopping carts are pretty dangerous. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reported that 20,700 kids under 5 years old were treated in hospital emergency rooms for shopping cart-related accidents in 2005. About 75% of these injuries were to the head or neck with about 85% occurring after a kid fell out of the cart or caused the cart to tip over. Current restraint systems are inadequate for proper protection once a kid gets too old, so the AAP recommends putting your kids in carts that look like race cars or fire trucks. They're less likely to fall out and if they do, they don't have very far to go. Their best advice to help avoid shopping cart accidents – leave your kids with a caretaker while you go to the store by yourself.

Shopping carts are also pretty gross.  A 2007 study by the University of Arizona found that human saliva, mucus, urine, fecal matter, as well as the blood and juices from raw meat, were found on the handles and child seats of 36 grocery carts in San Francisco, Chicago, Tucson, and Tampa.  The carts ranked third on the list of nastiest public items to touch, with only playground equipment and the armrests on public transportation producing more germ-laden results.

Because of this, many states have asked stores to provide sanitary wipes for customers, or to provide regular sanitation measures. Some of these measures include the PureCart cleaning system, which operates like a miniature car wash to spray carts with FDA- and EPA-approved chemicals that eliminate 99% of the nasties found on a typical shopping cart. A similar system, the Germ Terminator, created by Fleet Cleaning Systems, uses harmless UV-C ultraviolet light to destroy 99.9% of bacteria without chemicals. Both are incredibly economical – the PureCart costs about 1 cent per cart and the Germ Terminator is only about $3 per month to operate – which is generally cheaper and more effective than a container of wet wipes at the door.