The Strange History of the Shopping Cart



In 1934, Oklahoma grocer Sylvan Goldman’s chain was in trouble. The economy was shot, and although people still have to eat during hard times, what they choose is influenced by the economic climate. Folks were gravitating towards cheaper, more basic foods that have smaller markups built into the price. Lowered markups can mean the difference between a store thriving and failing. Goldman began to study his shoppers, looking for clues that would help him restore profitability to his business. He began to notice that shoppers normally ended their shopping when the hand-carried baskets became so full that they were too heavy to continue. That’s when Goldman decided to affix an undercarriage — made from a folding chair with wheels added to it — to pairs of metal over-the-arm baskets. If weight were taken out of the equation, would customers shop longer and buy more? The answer was no — folks preferred to stick with what they knew. Goldman didn’t give up. He hired decoy shoppers to wheel the new carts through the store, providing a visual demonstration of what his innovation could do. The strategy paid off. Folks began wheeling baskets through the store and quickly established a preference for them. Thus, the shopping cart rolled its way into marketing history. Upon his death in 1984, Goldman left behind an estate worth more than $400 million, much of it earned thanks to a wheeled folding chair affixed to the underside of two baskets.