“The wonderful thing about food is that everyone uses it, and they only use it once.” – Sylvan Goldman
The grocery cart, now a retail standard, originally looked nothing like it does today. In 1936, Sylvan Goldman and a young mechanic by the name of Fred Young invented the first commercial grocery cart. It was humble at first, but the pair’s invention went on to change the retail world forever.
The First Cart
In 1934, Goldman bought the grocery chains Piggly Wiggly and Humpty-Dumpty, both based in Oklahoma City. Around this time shoppers were buying new, heavier kinds of products but still using hand baskets to carry them. The increase in canned goods and refrigerated items inspired Goldman to make shopping easier for his customers. He grabbed his handyman Fred Young and a few supplies, and the two spent a night coming up with a prototype of a rolling grocery basket.
At first, Goldman’s plan didn’t succeed. Women compared the cart to a baby stroller and refused to push around the cart while they shopped. “I’ve pushed my last baby buggy,” they told him. Men were offended at the idea that they could not carry all their groceries around the store, and worried that the carts made them seem weak. Still, Goldman persevered.
He hired young women to model the carts and push them around his supermarkets, demonstrating their utility. This strategy immediately converted a few people. He then recruited male and female actors of all ages to advertise his grocery carts, and suddenly his stores were filled with happy shoppers unburdened by their groceries. Goldman began selling his carts to competitors, and quickly turned his former folding chairs into a booming business.
Trouble on the Horizon
The grocery industry, however, would soon be introduced to a landmark invention: telescoping carts. In Missouri, business owner and machinist Orla Watson came up with a design for a grocery cart that improved upon Goldman’s basket-carriers. The cart allowed for space-saving convenience in supermarkets and parking lots by nesting multiple carts together instead of disassembling them. Watson filed for a patent in 1946, but had his invention contested by Goldman. In the meantime, Goldman produced replicas of the nesting carts to compete against the new challenger. Goldman sold his new carts for three dollars less than Watson’s, using his manufacturing resources to effectively drive his competitor out of the market. Finally, after an extended legal battle, Watson was granted the patent in 1949. Goldman was required to pay him royalties for each nesting cart produced.
The design of the grocery cart would remain the same for decades, but minor additions helped to shape the cart into what it is today. Most notably, carts were outfitted with seats for children beginning in the mid-1950s. These seats cemented the grocery cart as a supermarket necessity.
The shopping cart can be found today in any website with a product to sell, but its history is rooted in a late-night idea and some tinkering in an Oklahoma supermarket. In the next installment of this history of the shopping cart, we’ll be looking at some of the modern additions to grocery cart design, ranging from security devices to complete redesigns and the jump to online shopping. We’ll also look at where cart-less retailers stand in the market today. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter, and stay up-to-date on future videos and publications.