Fact Check

The Strange History of the Shopping Cart

How the wheeled shopping cart came to be...and came to be used for so many purposes.

Published Nov. 15, 2000

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The shopping cart was not a resounding success when first introduced.

In the middle of the Depression, Sylvan Goldman, an Oklahoma grocer, acquired several Humpty Dumpty stores (a bankrupt chain of retail grocers in the South) and tried to make them profitable. His 1934 acquisition didn't originally look to have been a wise decision — the economy was shot, and although it's true that even in bad times people have to eat, what they choose to buy is influenced by the economic climate. During downturns, folks gravitate towards cheaper, more basic foodstuffs that have smaller markups built into the price. Lowered markups can mean the difference between an outlet's thriving or failing, because the profit margin in the grocery business is razor-thin. Even a busy grocery store can be losing money if the markup on what it is selling is too small to cover the expenses of running the business.

Goldman's chain was in trouble. He studied his shoppers, looking for clues in their actions that would help him restore profitability to his enterprise. He began to notice they generally terminated their activity when their hand-carried baskets became uncomfortably heavy and would then head for the checker rather than start a new basket. This observation led to his 1936 instructions to employee Fred Young to affix an undercarriage (made from a folding chair with wheels added to it) to pairs of metal, over-the-arm baskets. If weight were taken out of the equation, would customers buy more? Would they shop longer?

The answer was a resounding no — folks preferred to stick with what they knew rather than play around with an unusual-looking contraption, and customers continued to use the heavy arm-borne baskets to carry all their goods to the checkers. Goldman did not give up — he hired decoy shoppers to wheel the new carts through the store, so providing a visual demonstration of what this innovation could do. He also stationed someone at the front door to greet patrons and offer them carts as they entered.

The strategy paid off. Folks began using the wheeled baskets, and they quickly established a lasting preference for them. Shopping carts became an ordinary part of the shopping experience in other retail outlets.

The shopping cart thus rolled its way into marketing history. Upon his death in 1984, Goldman left behind an estate worth more than $400 million, a lot of it earned thanks to a wheeled folding chair affixed to the underside of two baskets.

The invention of a once-struggling businessman revolutionized the shopping experience in terms of how shoppers make their purchasing decisions. The average shopper, pushing a cart, goes into a store with a list, but also leisurely perambulates down aisles and past displays, filling the cart not only with intended buys but also impulse items whose displays or prices strike his fancy. The maneuverability and ease of shopping with a cart freed the consumer to roam the length of the store, thus putting him in the way of retail temptation that the heavy arm-borne basket cocooned him from.

We could happily conclude our history of the shopping cart there, but that would leave out all the sex. Modern shoppers have found new uses for this now seemingly mundane grocery conveyance — it has at least in some parts of the U.S. become a component in a specialized way to indicate via non-verbal signals potential sexual availability.

In some parts of the United States, hanging a bunch of bananas through the wires of one's shopping cart has at times been a way for a male shopper to indicate his desire to meet up with women in the market for a bit of hanky-panky. Similarly, the presence of a pineapple in a woman's cart is said to indicate an interest in meeting a bananas-fostered man. (But of course none of this works if everyone is not on the same page of the playbook; the signals won't be picked up on if the other players aren't also in the know. A tie left hanging on a doorknob is, after all, just an out-of-place cravat unless one's roommate is clued in on its meaning.)

In the 1980s, some upscale supermarkets in the more urbane settings began featuring "Singles Nights" when the unattached could openly check out the available talent while ostensibly doing their weekly reprovisioning. Canny marketers began by offering specials on those nights on single-sized portion foods such as yogurt and small packages of cheese, gave away door prizes such as dinners and trips, and hired local disc jockeys to play records while shoppers competed in dance contests in the paper goods aisle (no breakage that way). Once these nights were established and well-attended, disc jockeys were discontinued, but top 40 music took the place of Muzak on the P.A. system. Name tags were provided to all to facilitate the getting-to-know-you process.

Singles who attended on those nights were surprisingly particular about what they placed in their carts, often choosing not to pick up what they needed but instead selecting items they thought would speak well of them. One lad made sure he was wheeling around matzos and dog food because he wanted to attract a Jewish woman, and even though he didn't own a dog, he wanted to project an image of being warm and loving. A group of four young ladies filled their communal cart with potato chips and soda, hoping to convey the message they were into partying.

"Meet" markets have since apparently gone out of vogue, but that is not to say that the produce section of any given grocery store does not remain a popular spot for cruising for new friends. A puzzled look over a cantaloupe can often elicit helpful information that one should sniff it, not thump it, to test for ripeness, and those openers have been known to lead to the altar (or other pieces of furniture). Likewise, holding up a ripe avocado and asking, "Do you have any idea how to turn this into guacamole?" has enticed more than one damsel to reveal her cooking secrets (and maybe her Victoria's).

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Mullen, William.   "On a Roll."     Chicago Tribune.   3 February 1991.

Sugarman, Carole.   "In the Market for Love."     The Washington Post.   6 July 1986.

Library of Curious and Unusual Facts: Inventive Genius.     Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1991.   ISBN 0-8094-7699-1   (p. 73).

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