I like to follow rules. More precisely, I am afraid of being caught breaking rules. But if a grocery store has a sizable runway and no one else is around, one of my favorite rules to break is to jump onto the back of a shopping cart’s undercarriage, skate the cart down the aisle, and try to pop a wheelie.
Grocery carts occupy an interesting niche in our daily lives, slowly transitioning from exciting to mundane as we grow up. Similarly, throughout history they’ve gone from being revolutionary to barely considered.
In fact, in the 21st century, carts are so ingrained in our way of life that many shoppers might be unaware of their rocky origin story, as well as the many cart innovations throughout history that have shifted the way we shop. Here’s a timeline of the grocery cart’s relatively short existence, a history that reflects American consumerism as we know it.
1937: Sylvan Goldman’s Revolutionary Idea
The modern shopping cart was invented by Sylvan Goldman, a grocer from Oklahoma City. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, “While living in California, Sylvan and [his brother] Alfred were intrigued by a new type of grocery store that offered all products under one roof—the supermarket. The brothers returned to Oklahoma in order to bring this new way of shopping to their home state.”
While running the Humpty Dumpty grocery chain in the 1930s, the problem Goldman encountered with the new large-format stores was that grocery baskets still limited the amount of products customers could pick up as they walked the aisles. He started fiddling with the design of the basket, eventually landing on a potential solution when he placed it on a folding chair.
“With the help of an employee, Fred Young, Goldman devised a prototype shopping cart, based on the folding chair: wheels at the bottom of the chair legs and two metal baskets on top of each other in place of the chair seat,” writes Wired.
Though it’s hard to picture a modern grocery store without carts, shoppers at the time were hesitant to embrace them. The option caused anxiety for men, who saw wheeling a cart as effeminate, and women bristled at the similarities between a grocery cart and a baby stroller. But Goldman had some pretty forward-thinking ideas for normalizing shopping cart use.
“Instead of giving up, [Goldman] hired models of both sexes and different ages to push things around in his store, pretending to be shopping,” writes Wired. The gimmick ended up paying off—a good reminder that influencer marketing is nothing new.
Besides being the site of the first grocery carts, Humpty Dumpty was also a pioneer of the modern-day supermarket model. Upon its closure in 1985, The Oklahoman eulogized it this way:
“Humpty Dumpty was reminiscent of Piggly Wiggly, a forerunner of grocery chains that spread through America in the 1920s, changing family shopping habits, replacing family-owned and corner grocers, which offered home delivery and charge accounts…Goldman’s Humpty Dumpty was special.”
1947: Orla Watson’s Nesting Cart
The next notable tweak to the shopping cart, after the addition to a child seating area, was a solution to cart storage. Engineer Orla Watson noticed that shopping carts, while helpful, were bulky and hard to store within supermarkets. His modification to the design—adding a swinging panel in the rear of the cart—created a way for carts to nest one inside the other, effectively stacking them horizontally to reduce the amount of space they take up when not in use. When you see a shopping cart attendant piloting a thundering train of metal carts across the parking lot asphalt, that is Orla Watson’s fingerprint.
Something about inventors is that they’re never just working on one invention. While Watson’s “telescoping” compact design stuck, he also dabbled in other alterations to shopping cart design. One interesting idea was a “power lift,” which brought the cart’s lower basket up to counter level for convenient unloading at the register. This patent, however, never moved forward.
1968: Shopping Cart Wheel Lock
It’s a costly business for grocery stores to provide carts to customers. Having never really considered how much a shopping cart might cost, I was surprised to learn they do, in fact, cost a hefty amount—as much as $125-200 a pop!
The first modern anti-theft cart concept was patented in the late 1960s by Elmer Isaaks, whose design “enforced the cart perimeter with a row of magnets under the pavement,” writes Willamette Week. “When a cart rolled over the line, a magnetic mechanism would push a rod through a hole in the wheel, like a stick through the spokes of a bicycle.”
The design of these carts has been built out and improved upon since its inception. Here’s a good video on how exactly the locking system works.
1976: ALDI Comes to America
When German grocer ALDI jumped over the Atlantic Ocean into North America, it brought with it a small tweak to the shopping carts that Americans had gotten used to. More common in Europe is the practice of a pay cart: Shoppers deposit a coin to unlock the cart, and they get that coin back upon returning the cart to the corral. I find it funny that pay-to-play carts are a European invention—has anything ever sounded more American than spending money for the privilege of spending money?
This system arguably solves a few problems inherent to an armada of loose carts. First, it regulates where the carts go. Unless you want to lose your quarter, you’ll return the cart yourself, neatly stacking it with its fellows. For a grocery store looking to cut costs, this eliminates the need for cart wranglers. And when the carts aren’t abandoned in the parking lot, it keeps them in better shape for longer.
While a coin deposit is not the most complex iteration of asset security, being unable to wheel a cart without paying for it is certainly a way to keep carts on store premises, and it’s a method that has stuck around for nearly half a century.
1995: e-Commerce and Shopping Carts
It should come as no surprise that, after six decades of widespread use, the shopping cart made its natural leap into the world of internet iconography in the mid-1990s. In fact, an online “shopping cart” has become as commonplace as its tangible counterpart.
In 1995, a German tech entrepreneur named Stephan Schambach invented what we now know as an online shopping cart. As the internet has grown, so too has e-commerce, and online shopping carts have the added benefit of not needing to be returned or wrangled. The digital cart is a crucial tool for companies to assess consumer behavior and predict other items those consumers might want. It’s reasonable to say that Amazon owes much (if not most) of its current market dominance to the personal data provided by customers’ shopping carts.
2023: The Future of Shopping Carts
Carts are constantly being improved upon, and their function has shifted along with our shopping habits. Take the Kroger eCart, essentially a set of lockers on wheels that employees can fill with grocery pickup orders. Or the Instacart “Caper Cart,” which allows the consumer to pay via the cart and skip the checkout line. Many modern innovations try to increase profits for the retailer by providing convenience for the customer.
However, certain innovations are squarely focused on security and loss prevention, using technology to create carts with intricate anti-theft systems, such as those that lock up if you don’t exit through a checkout lane—yes, even if you didn’t buy anything. If these designs prove to reduce losses for businesses, then the days of “analog” shopping carts could be on the decline. Some stores have even taken the drastic anti-theft measure of removing shopping baskets altogether and locking up products behind glass.
Perhaps shopping cart design has already reached its zenith. These devices are, after all, a streamlined way to gather the maximum number of items while navigating store aisles comfortably. Maybe everything since Orla Watson’s nesting cart has just been a hat on a hat. But the shopping cart has that most coveted distinction in the world of American design and innovation: It’s a creation so groundbreaking that we hardly think of it at all.
More from The Takeout