There are two types of grocery shopping trips – ‘legit shopping’ and the ‘quick in-and-out.’
Unless you’re some form of octopoid, legit shopping always requires a cart. The quick in-and-out, however, is typically manageable with hands alone or the little hand baskets.
Occasionally, however, halfway down the third aisle, a cramping sensation draws one’s eyes down to their soup-can-filled hands, the pack of toilet paper under one arm, slowly slipping cereal boxes under the other and the giant bag of charcoal clutched between their knees. They should’ve gotten a cart.
Defeated and nearing complete muscle failure, they shuffle to the entrance, dumping everything into a shopping cart. They caress the handlebar and say aloud, “What’s the story there?”
Curiously, it turns out the story of the shopping cart is tightly linked to the story of shopping. See, way back in the early 20th century, there was no internet. Online shoppers had no way to get to websites like Amazon or safeway.com. They had no choice but to drive to the nearest grocer.
Unlike modern supermarkets, grocers back then only sold dry and canned goods, and customers had to request everything at a counter. You asked for a can of beans and the grocer would call out to an assistant to fetch it from a shelf.
The assistant would call back, “Can o’ beets, you say, sir?”
The grocer would reply, “No, Jimmy, a can of beans, I says.”
And then, once the beans were bagged up, you’d ask for a can of beets.
In 1916, entrepreneur Clarence Saunders opened the first self-service grocery store, Piggly Wiggly, in Memphis, Tennessee. Customers entered through a turnstile, fetched their beans and beets from shelves, and paid at a check stand. Some called this new concept a ‘groceteria,’ for its similarity to the setup at cafeterias. Thankfully, the name didn’t stick. It kind of evokes ‘gross’ and ‘bacteria.’
Piggly Wiggly shoppers were provided picnic-style hand baskets that fit roughly the same amount of stuff as our modern-day plastic ones, but self-service stores soon expanded into supermarkets with 10 times the selection. Storeowners brainstormed ways for patrons to buy more stuff than the teensy hand basket could fit.
Maybe a herd of pack mules or camels? No, people would end up leaving them all over the parking lot.
Enter Sylvan Goldman, owner of the Humpty Dumpty supermarket chain in Oklahoma City (my guess is the name ‘Humpty Dumpty’ came after Piggly Wiggly’s example-wample). In 1937, Goldman drew inspiration from a folding chair when he came up with the very first shopping cart — essentially, a foldable, rolling, two-level shelf that held two hand baskets.
Goldman unveiled his invention on June 4, 1937. The ‘Humpty Dumpty Fantasket Basket’ was an instant sensation! No, that was a lie … he gave it a much catchier name – the folding basket carriage for self-service stores. But it failed miserably.
Male customers said they were too effeminate, and women said the carts looked like baby carriages.
But Goldman was no quitter. He hired well-kempt men and women to shop around the store with the carts while, I imagine, swinging their blessedly free arms about as they sang the carts’ praises.
“Well gosh me to heck, but ain’t this joint’s basket carriages just the cat’s pajamas?”
Within a few months, people abandoned their shallow objections in favor of common sense.
For a decade, Goldman’s invention ruled the supermarket aisle, but in 1946, engineer Orla E. Watson envisioned a better basket. He appreciated the two-basket design, but every time he went to the store, he’d bumble around with the contraption like an as-seen-on-TV ad.
Watson sketched a number of new, all-in-one cart designs, but he knew they’d take up too much floor space. One day, a telescope rolled past his office and winked at him. Watson knew what to do.
Incorporating a swing-up back door would allow the carts to nest into each other, just like a collapsible telescope. Watson opened a new company, Telescope Carts, Inc., and patented the key elements of shopping carts that remain to this day.
After dumping my giant charcoal bag into a cart, I asked Sandi Johnson, assistant manager of Raley’s in Brentwood, if, after all this time, there remained room for improvement to today’s cart. Sandi lit up as I suspect Watson did 73 years ago when that telescope winked at him.
“What I’d do is put in some kind of system where you step on a pedal to bring up the bottom rack with all the heavy stuff,” said Johnson.
It’s a brilliant idea, actually. Maybe she should get some sketches together for the patent office.