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How The Shopping Cart Shaped Our Buying Habits

What happens when you can buy more than you can carry.

How The Shopping Cart Shaped Our Buying Habits

Photo: Dennis Hallinan/Getty Images

How would the world look without the shopping cart? More specifically, how would the average trip to the grocery store in the U.S. look without the help of a carry-all cart to load way too much food into your car?

Flickr user Michael Ocampo

Like most breakthroughs, says Priceonomics’ Zachary Crockett, the shopping cart was the result of several factors converging. By the 1930s, home refrigeration meant that shoppers could buy more at once, and keep it at home longer. At the same time, supermarket mogul Sylvan Goldman wondered how shoppers could buy more than they could carry in handbaskets. His concern was that his main customers—women—wouldn’t buy more than they could heft around his stores:


"'When the housewife got her basket full, it was too heavy for her to carry and she stopped shopping,' Goldman recalled in a 1970 interview. 'I thought if there was some way we could give the customer two baskets to shop with and still have one hand free to shop, we could do considerably more business.'"

Goldman came up with the idea for this two-tier shopping trolley, says Crockett, after seeing a folding chair and realizing that it could carry two baskets and be set on wheels to make it easy to roll through the aisles. He patented the design and went on to become the first shopping-cart magnate.

Today’s familiar design came later, after a startup rival invented the rear-swinging door, which allows the carts to stack horizontally. Goldman pretty much stole the idea through the courts, and the design hasn’t changed since, other than to grow larger and to become plastic (although in Europe, carts remain mostly made of metal).

Flickr user Erich Ferdinand

This growth is a continuation of Goldman’s original goal—to make it easy for customers buy more. According to the Consumerist, bigger carts mean we buy more. Stores have made carts bigger in order to facilitate easier over-shopping.

But, paradoxically, buying more in a shopping cart might be better than buying less with a basket. The Journal of Marketing Research says that people shopping with a basket on their arm are more likely to buy junk food (called "vice products" by the journal). Amazingly, the link they found is the fact that your arm is bent to hold the basket.

So it seems that shopping carts aren’t just good for stores but good for us, too. But it mightn’t have been this way, if not for Sylvan Goldman’s persistence. His carts were, in the beginning, a failure. Here he is, in a letter to the Smithsonian:


"I went into our largest store, there wasn’t a soul using a basket carrier . . . Most of the housewives decided, ‘No more carts for me. I have been pushing enough baby carriages. I don’t want to push anymore.’ The men [said], ‘You mean with my big strong arms I can’t carry a darn little basket like that?’ And he wouldn’t touch it. It was a complete flop."

The final answer, after several other futile schemes, was to hire fake shoppers—male and female—to use the carts in his stores, looking handsome and happy while they did it. It worked, and the shopping cart was a success. Such a success, in fact, that it has since been repurposed as a way for homeless people to carry more belongings with them; as a decorative ornamentation for dried-up river beds; and as a vehicle to help drunken 20-somethings race around parking lots.

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