“The shopping cart is what enabled this rapid flutter from one object to another,” Warnes said in an email. “He gave people a receptacle on wheels that they could toss their choices into and move on to the next.”
But from the start, customers were wary of shopping carts, much to the surprise of the man responsible for making them an object of everyday life.
The first day they appeared in its stores, Goldman expected long lines of customers waiting to use them. “There were people shopping. No one was using a cart.”
Women said, ‘No, we’ve pushed enough baby strollers, we’re not going to push strollers in stores,'” Goldman recalled in a 1972 letter. Men thought the strollers would make them look weak.
“Male customers were saying, ‘With my big arms I can carry my baskets, I’m not pushing one of those things,'” she said.
The arrival of supermarkets
The adoption of shopping carts came just as supermarkets burst onto the scene in the United States.
Before supermarkets, shoppers would go to their local supermarket and have an employee fill their orders at the counter or call them for delivery.
But self-service supermarkets, which were first developed by Piggly Wiggly in Memphis in 1916 and allowed shoppers to pick items from the shelves themselves, began to replace this model.
In the decades that followed, as more Americans began to drive, larger supermarkets with parking lots began to open in new suburbs.
Yet even though shoppers had cars with trunks and new refrigerators at home to keep groceries fresh longer, they still carried baskets as they browsed stores and were unlikely to stock up.
A supermarket chain in Texas offered carts in the early 20th century, but they didn’t gain traction, 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 with wheels
Goldman, a pioneer supermarket in Oklahoma with Standard Food Markets and Humpty Dumpty stores, saw customers stop shopping once their basket was full or too heavy.
His first solution was to order store employees to offer a second basket to customers and store the full one at the checkout counter.
Then, in 1936, Goldman came up with the idea of a rolling cart. With the help of a handyman, he attached wheels to a folding chair and placed a basket on top.
He also believed that offering shoppers a cart would lead them to buy more, which would increase the company’s sales.
“If there was some way we could give that customer two baskets to shop in and still have one hand free to shop, we could do a lot more business,” he later recalled.
Goldman founded the Folding Basket Carrier Co. (today called Unarco, partly owned by Berkshire Hathaway) and placed an ad in a local newspaper alerting customers to his new invention.
“Can you imagine making your way through a spacious food market without having to carry a cumbersome shopping basket on your arm?” the ad said.
But at first few shoppers jumped on the carts.
To convince customers to use them, Goldman hired people to walk around the store with shopping carts and fill them.
Customers began to follow the lead of these shills, and soon every Goldman store was equipped with carts. He soon began selling carts to other supermarkets for $6 or $7.
Store managers were initially reluctant to buy the carts because they worried children would damage them or have accidents.
Goldman allayed these concerns by making promotional films that demonstrated the correct way to use the cars. A few years later, he introduced a stroller with a child seat.
The biggest change to the cart came in 1946, when Orla Watson in Kansas City patented the “telescoping cart,” which allowed them to slide 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 similar telescoping version of its own, the Nest Kart. “No more bike rack parking hassles,” read an ad for Goldman’s Nest Karts.
Goldman and Watson fought legally over the patent, but reached an agreement in which Goldman won the right to license the telescopic version of the car.
“It’s hard to improve on it as a design,” Warnes said. “The metal is durable. The mesh system is transparent. The child seat is a brilliant solution for shopping 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 how they ended up outside stores.
Carts also became a symbol of urban blight and poverty, often used by the homeless to store and transport their belongings.
“That says something about the role of the shopping cart in our lives.”