Robots deliver grocery shopping to doorsteps 0:39 New York (CNN Business) — We live in a world marked by shopping carts. These ubiquitous and unloved gadgets are a key element of the American economy. (Yes, really). The birth of shopping carts in the early 20th century helped usher in an era of mass consumption and allowed groceries and brands to expand their offerings, without customers worrying about how to get things to their car. To attract shoppers’ attention and stimulate their senses as they pushed carts around, brands began adding cartoon characters to checkouts, bright packaging, and catchy logos with exclamation points. Shopping carts also fueled the rise of impulse buying, according to Andrew Warnes, professor of American literature at the University of Leeds, England, and author of “How the Shopping Cart Explains Global Consumerism.” “The shopping cart is what enabled this rapid flitting from object to object,” Warnes said in an email. “It gave people a wheelie bin where they could dump their choices and move on to the next.” The humble shopping cart, an engine of the American economy. But, at first, customers were wary of shopping carts, to the surprise of the person responsible for making them an object of everyday life. “I thought it would be an immediate hit,” Sylvan Goldman, an Oklahoma grocery store owner who is considered the father of the modern shopping cart, said in a 1977 television interview. “He was very excited about the cart.” The first day they showed up in his stores, Goldman was expecting long lines of customers waiting to use them. “There were people shopping. Not a single person was using the cart.” Women would say, “No, we’ve pushed enough baby carriages, we’re not going to push carts in stores,” Goldman recalled in a 1972 letter. Men thought the carts would make them look weak. “The male customers were like, ‘With my big arms I can carry my baskets, I’m not going to push one of those things,'” he said. The Arrival of Supermarkets The adoption of shopping carts came just as supermarkets burst into America. Before supermarkets, shoppers would go to their local grocery store and have orders placed at the counter by a clerk or called for delivery. But self-service supermarkets, first developed by Piggly Wiggly in Memphis in 1916 and allowing shoppers to choose items from the shelves themselves, began to replace this model. In the decades that followed, as Americans began to drive, larger supermarkets with parking lots opened in the new suburbs. How people bought before the cars arrived. Yet even though shoppers had cars with trunks and new fridges at home to keep groceries fresh longer, they still carried baskets as they browsed stores and were unlikely to stock up. “You start self-service with a basket. But by the time people start driving cars, they want to buy more than they carry,” said historian Susan Strasser, author of “Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market”. A Texas grocery store chain offered carts in the early 20th century, but they failed to catch on, in part because the baskets were considered aristocratic. “There was kind of an embarrassment about asking customers to push carts,” Warnes said. A folding chair on wheels Goldman, an Oklahoma supermarket pioneer with Standard Food Markets and Humpty Dumpty stores, saw customers stop shopping when their basket was full or too heavy. His first solution was to tell the clerks to offer a second basket to customers and to keep the full one in the register. Then, in 1936, Goldman had the idea for a cart on wheels. With the help of a handyman, he attached wheels to a folding chair and put a basket on it. He also believed that offering shoppers a cart would drive them to buy more, increasing the company’s sales. “If there was some way to give that customer two baskets to buy and still have a free hand to buy, we could do a lot more business,” he later recalled. Goldman founded the Folding Basket Carrier Co. (today Unarco, partly owned by Berkshire Hathaway) and placed an ad in a local newspaper alerting customers to his new invention. Sylvan Goldman, the founder of the modern shopping cart. “Can you imagine walking through a large food market without having to carry a cumbersome shopping basket on your arm?” the ad read. But at first few buyers accepted the carts. To convince customers to use them, Goldman hired people to walk around the store with shopping carts and fill them up. Customers began to follow their lead, and soon all Goldman stores were equipped with carts. He soon began selling carts to other supermarkets for US$6 or US$7. At first, store managers were reluctant to buy the carts because they worried that children would damage them or have accidents. Goldman allayed these concerns by making promotional films that demonstrated the proper way to use the carts. A few years later, he introduced a stroller with a child seat. The biggest change to the cart came in 1946, when Orla Watson of Kansas City patented the “telescoping cart,” which allowed them to be slid together in horizontal stacks to alleviate the storage dilemma. Watson claimed that each of the new carts required only a fifth of the space that Goldman’s folding carts took up. In response, Goldman patented a telescoping version similar to his, the Nest Kart. “No more basket parking hassles,” read an ad for Goldman’s Nest carts. Goldman and Watson got into a legal fight over the patent, but reached an agreement in which Goldman won the right to license the telescopic version of the cart. Leaving the store The basic design of the cart hasn’t changed much since then. Seat belts were added to child seats in the 1960s, though that hasn’t stopped thousands of shopping cart accidents involving children from occurring each year. “It’s hard to improve the design,” says Warnes. “The metal is durable. The mesh system is transparent. The booster seat is a brilliant solution to buy with a small child. It’s stackable so it’s very easy to transport.” Perhaps the biggest development of shopping carts in recent decades is the way they end up outside stores. Cities and towns have tried to crack down on lost shopping carts. The cars were often found abandoned in alleys, rivers and forests, prompting lawmakers across the country to start imposing regulations and fines on businesses whose cars strayed from their stores. There’s even a book, “The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification,” dedicated to the strange places carts end up. They appear as logos on e-commerce websites and in artwork by street artist Banksy. Carts also became a symbol of urban misery and poverty, often used by homeless people to store and transport their belongings. “It plays a big role among the poor. It’s the home of all their possessions,” says John Lienhard, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and history at the University of Houston, who dedicated an episode of his public radio show “The Engines of Our ingenuity” to shopping carts. “That says something about the role of the shopping cart in our lives.”
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