Reinventing the Shopping Cart

Reinventing the Shopping Cart

The first shopping cart was patented in 1940 and was reinvented in 1946.

The first shopping cart in the United States was patented in 1940 by Sylvan Goldman. The cart had two baskets that sat on a folding frame, one on the top and one on the bottom. Grocery stores were much smaller than they are today, and there wasn’t much storage space for carts. When not in use, the baskets were removed from the frame and stacked, and the frame was folded. While great for storage, the carts weren’t so convenient for shoppers.

Sylvan Goldman’s “Folding Basket Carriage” had a “dependable structural assemblage which is rigid and reliable when erected for use, and compact and convenient when folder for storage.

In 1946, Orla Watson improved on Goldman’s design with his “Telescoping Shopping Cart,” a cart that could nest with others for easy and more compact storage. As the marketing brochure boasted, the carts took up one-fifth the space of a regular cart and saved floor space “right in front of the door where it is most valuable.” The telescoping carts also made it easier for shoppers to retrieve and return carts. The first telescoping carts were used in Floyd Day’s Super Market in Kansas City, Missouri in 1947.

Telescoping Shopping Cart, c. 1949 In 1946, Orla E. Watson of Kansas City, Mo.,
developed the familiar telescoping shopping carts that nestle together for compact storage.

Watson applied for a patent on his shopping cart invention in 1946, but Goldman filed a similar patent and fought Watson’s claim. Goldman eventually gave up, and Watson received a patent for the invention. In return, Watson granted Goldman licensing rights for the telescoping shopping, allowing him to manufacture and sell carts—and ensuring that Watson received royalties for each cart Goldman made.

On August 16, 1949, Orla Watson received patent number 2,479,530 for the “Telescoping Shopping Cart”; Telescoping Shopping Cart Collection,
Archives Center (AC0739-0000001)

Though the “power lift” of Watson’s original design—a feature that raised a bottom basket on the cart up to the height of the conveyor belt—hasn’t survived, the telescoping feature certainly has. In fact, shopping carts have changed very little in the last 60+ years. As we explore Things That Roll in Spark!Lab, we have been asking kids and parents how they would improve the shopping cart. Visitors can examine Watson’s sketches and patent drawing, and are invited to share their ideas by writing or drawing on the chalkboard.

Reproductions of Orla Watson’s sketches provide inspiration for visitors as they consider how they would improve the shopping cart; Telescoping Shopping
Cart Collection, Archives Center (AC0739-0000011 [top] and AC0730-0000012 [bottom)

By the end of each day, the chalkboard is full of ideas, which seem to fall into two primary categories: making the act of shopping easier, more comfortable or more convenient, and making the carts themselves better for our groceries.

Nearly every day someone suggests that shopping carts should have chargers for our phones and other electronics.

Other common requests are for omnidirectional (or simply better) wheels, seats for grownups, and motorized or self-propelling carts.

Many visitors envision carts they don’t have to push.

Many visitors would like grocery carts with defined areas for specific items: a cold compartment for refrigerated foods, a bin lined with soft material (“maybe like Bubble wrap”) for thin-skinned fruits and vegetables, and a place to keep items like cleaning products separate from food.

Some of the most original suggestions have included equipping carts with electronic “aisle maps” so shoppers can search for and easily locate specific items (especially handy if you’re in an unfamiliar store), and designing a cart with a built-in scanner on the handle and partitions for grocery bags in the basket of the cart. With this set-up, the visitor reasoned, shoppers could scan their groceries and bag them as they shopped, making checkout quick and easy. The visitor also felt this would avoid the frustration of having groceries bagged “incorrectly.” He lamented that he often puts items on the conveyor belt as he’d like them bagged, only to have the clerk “just bag things willy-nilly!”

Of course, our Spark!Lab visitors aren’t the first to think of improving on Orla Watson’s design. In 1999, design firm IDEO took on the challenge of redesigning the shopping cart as part of a segment on ABC’s Nightline. Many of the ideas that have arisen in Spark!Lab were also part of IDEO’s vision: wheels that allow the cart to move sideways, a built-in scanner, and a set of small baskets (instead of one large one) for different types and amounts of food.

IDEO’s prototype shopping cart was designed to cost about the same as a traditional cart but with a new look
and functionality; image courtesy of IDEO.

More recently, researchers have experimented with creating partitions in shopping baskets to see if they could encourage healthy eating habits by designating an area of the cart for produce. As the researchers noted, “the simple act of partitioning the grocery cart led people to buy more fruits and vegetables,” so perhaps healthy-eating shopping carts will be the next great innovation in our grocery stores.

How would you reinvent the shopping cart? Comment here or tweet your ideas to @SI_Invention and use #SparkLab.

By Tricia Edwards
Smithsonian Institution