We’ve all pushed a shopping cart down the store aisle, and most of us have clicked a website’s “checkout” button starring the cart symbol—but have you ever paused to think about how that cart came to be?
There’s a fascinating history here. The story of the shopping cart’s rise to ubiquity is filled with light-bulb ideas, artistic interpretations, and even a well-known psychological theory on social behavior.
But let’s not put the grocery cart before the horse. Tracking its origin requires us to travel back to the 1930s when the cart first became a popular companion to Americans who needed a convenient way to store the items they were buying off grocery shelves.
If it weren’t for folding chairs…
In the early 20th century, the quick rise of industrialization led to the expansion of the convenience store and then the grocery store boom. By the 1940s and ‘50s, grocery stores soon became the main food-marketing channel in the US, due in part to the trend of reducing food costs and simplifying the pattern of marketing. And grocery stores soon became known as “supermarkets” as their product selection boomed.
The real expansion of new supermarkets came in the Baby Boom years. In 1951, Collier's magazine wrote that more than three new supermarkets were opening a day in the US, a pace that only increased in the 1960s. In 1950, supermarkets accounted for 35% of all food sales in America, and a decade later, that figure reached 70%.
On ground level, grocery chains offered baskets to shoppers to hold their goods but a key challenge cropped up: the weight of all those items. Carriers are fine for a few cereal boxes and a bag of apples, say, but how can shoppers manage a range of heavy items in those baskets?
In 1937 a few companies tried to toy with the concept of placing two baskets atop a wheeled frame but the design became too bulky.
Then along strolls in entrepreneur Sylvan N. Goldman, the owner of the Humpty Dumpty grocery store chain in Oklahoma City. On one afternoon, the grocery executive spotted two folding chairs in his office, and he suddenly had a Eureka! moment.
Why not raise the seat of a folding chair by several inches and add another similar seat below so a basket can be placed on each of them? Wheels attached to each leg would make this newfangled chair mobile, and the back of it could be adapted as a handle to push it around. Working with a handyman employed at one of his shops, Sylvan developed the system and in 1939 his version of the cart was introduced to shoppers.
But the product flopped at first: men felt emasculated by the idea of needing something to wheel around, while women argued that they had pushed enough baby carriages and this new shopping cart felt more of the same.
Another theory on the pushback the cart endured at its introduction is shared by Andrew Warnes, author of How the Shopping Cart Explains Global Consumerism. He says in an interview: “…suffice to say that there was a sense here of shopping-as-work, of becoming your own delivery person, and some horror, perhaps, in the days of the big shop, seeing the cart's X-ray image of all the things you and your family will consume.”
But when Goldman used the old marketing trick of paying his employees to act as shoppers harnessing his shopping carts, the ploy worked. People tried the carts, and they loved them. American consumers soon leaned away from basket carriers and towards its wheeled successor.
Thing is, the shopping cart had a major problem affecting retailers: they took up too much space before and after shoppers used them. Their metallic bodies were awkward and couldn’t be stacked as seamlessly as baskets.
But one inventor, seven years later, had his own light-bulb experience to revolutionize how we use shopping carts today.
It’s elementary to add telescoping to carts, my dear Watson
In 1946, 50-year-old Orla E. Watson left his job as draftsman at the Crafting and Processing Engineering Company in Kansas City to embark on a career as a freelance inventor. He first wanted to create a new type of pump but when he visited a grocery store with dozens of shopping carts left out in the parking lot, he came up with another invention.
He began by playing with the idea of horizontally telescoping frames rather than vertically stacked baskets. After a few iterations, he decided on two critical features that would define carts forever more: The carts fit into one another, thanks to the swinging gate at the rear end of the baskets, and they were also attached to the baskets so that they acted as permanent shopping carts and no longer basket carriers with separable elements.
Warnes says that while other containers (such as coffee cups and some fast food packaging) boast this nesting design, “it's hard to think of anything as substantial as a cart that has this feature,” he says, adding how “nesting also allows a sense of flow from store to car, letting customers leave their carts in convenient places, and staff to then transport them in rows back to the store. That avoids the obstructions to shopping mobility they would otherwise pose.”
This new design became a centerpiece product in grocery chains that were developing self-service stores in the ‘30s and ‘40s, which led to a surge in supermarkets dotting urban centres and the suburbs. For example, A&P, already the largest grocery chain in the US in 1920, more than tripled the number of stores it owned over the course of the decade.
Back then, magazine covers mattered so much that the main image on a popular print publication could skyrocket that person or product into fame. That’s what happened to the shopping cart when, in Life Magazine’s January 1955 issue, the shopping cart emblazoned the front cover to showcase an article on consumer culture.
A star was born.
A notable artistic inspiration and an opportunity for accessibility
What’s funny about shopping carts is how they haven’t changed much since those basket-and-frame days 80 years ago. Its structure got more robust, and some creative designers added steering wheels and funky colors, but otherwise the cart’s main design hasn’t gone through a major overhaul. Well, until most recently, but we’ll discuss that later.
That’s not to say the cart hasn’t been the target of accessibility advocates. Caroline’s Cart, designed by Drew Ann Long, the mother of a disabled child, crafted a new type of seat to fit into the handle area of a cart. Children, teens, or seniors who otherwise would need a wheelchair or scooter can sit comfortably in Caroline’s Cart.
Long told media reporters in 2016: “Many families were left out of the shopping experience. It has been an amazing journey and we’re just getting started.”
The shopping cart became such an enduring object of consumerism, it’s no surprise artists—from filmmakers to installation artists to musicians—saw value in retrofitting the standard shopping cart into a provocative statement.
Most notably, Banksy paired carts with a caveman on a piece of fake prehistoric rock art, and then secretly added the rock to a gallery, unnoticed for days.
It sold at auction for $10 million.
Australian designer Matt McVeigh created several installations starring carts. One remarkable piece included carts nested into each other to form a standing circle.
Photographer Julian Montague spent seven years capturing carts in dumpsters, alleys, and lawns to fuel his 2006 book The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification. He told the New York Times how much he appreciates the cart’s range of uses.
“Somebody can take it someplace and chop the wheels off, or take laundry to the basement. Unlike a plastic bag, it has multiple lives.”
Grocery carts also get cast in films where they can be used to imply carefree shopping sprees from the POV of the cart basket (see 28 Days Later). Or they can be manhandled as a battering ram like in the final fight scene of Hot Fuzz.
And Radiohead fans may remember that the video for Fake Plastic Trees focuses on Thom Yorke singing while seated in the basket of a cart. It never really took off as a mobile concert stage, though.
Navigating our moral compass with metal wires and wheels
We’ve all been there before: Hauling our shopping cart to the car, unloading our groceries into the trunk, and having to head back to the store to return the cart (and perhaps the quarter we paid to “rent” the cart). Are you the kind of person who will undoubtedly bring back the cart or will you leave it out in the wild?
That’s the basis behind the shopping cart theory, which says that the decision to return a cart is the true test of someone’s moral character and capacity to be self-governing.
The theory’s origin story is murky but supposedly it began with this text in 2019:
“To return the shopping cart is an easy, convenient task and one which we all recognize as correct, the appropriate thing to do. To return the shopping cart is objectively right. There are no situations other than dire emergencies in which a person is not able to return their cart. Simultaneously, it is not illegal to abandon your shopping cart. Therefore the shopping cart presents itself as the apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it.”
"(Returning) the shopping cart presents itself as the apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it."
Entering the ecommerce era
The cart is not just everywhere along retail aisles—now it’s online too. The cart as an icon nestled inside the checkout button has become the enduring symbol of commerce.
According to Warnes’ book, the shopping cart image actually began as an icon in the now defunct business Real Cart in 1995, pioneered by CEO Mark Mumma (another Oklahoman, coincidentally). (Editor’s note: If anyone is able to find this logo, let us know! The internet’s depths appear to be hiding it.)
Because cart designs don’t shift substantially from country to country, they serve as the ultimate icon of buying something and heading to checkout. Basket icons come in second place. But with a cart, there’s an under-recognized urge in comparison to the basket icon: a cart lets you “fill it up” more than a basket, perhaps instigating the online consumer to add more items to their purchase.
Shopping carts looking to smarten up
If we have smartphones, smart TVs, and smart homes, why not smart shopping carts? That’s the vision behind startups like Caper and Veeve, who are revamping the standard grocery cart to reflect our wallet-less ways.
Based out of Seattle, Veeve created a sleek cart sporting five sensors placed at multiple angles in the cart’s basket. Those sensors keep track of what the consumer adds to the cart and charges them automatically after scanning barcodes. The Veeve cart also has a touchscreen that can guide you to items in store, present recipes and alert you to deals. Its next version, due in 2022, will offer a GPS system to help shoppers find goodies on their shopping list.
The Veeve shopper just walks out the door without having to get any of their items scanned by a cashier.
“We want people to complete their shopping trips so they don’t have to wait in lines,” says Shariq Siddiqui, Veeve’s co-founder and CEO. “It’s about creating an omnichannel experience.”
In Canada, supermarket chain Sobeys introduced the Caper smart cart to their aisles in 2019. To address any hand-wringing over job losses, the company stressed how this technology isn’t going to replace human workers.
"We're actually able to free up some employees … to be on the floor answering customers, talking about the food, helping them choose a recipe or a product," Sobeys executive Mathieu Lacoursiere told CBC.
That kind of innovation, where Caper and Veeve layer on the cart a heaping amount of experimentation and ingenuity, harkens back to how Goldman and Watson envisioned a new way for shopping experiences to evolve.
The cart isn’t just a well-designed collection of metal bars and screws and wheels; it’s a long-lasting image of widespread consumerism, and of the surging ecommerce sector where the cart will live on for a generation of shoppers who have their own idea of what it means to checkout.