6 Aug 2016

An ode to the shopping trolley

From This Way Up, 12:15 pm on 6 August 2016

A shopping trolley can represent choice and abundance when it's trundling around the supermarket aisle or carpark. But on the street  – out of context – it can also become a symbol of deprivation and homelessness.

"Few inventions have so profoundly shaped consumer habits. With the exception of the automobile, the shopping cart is the most commonly used 'vehicle' in the world: some 25 million grace grocery stores across the US alone" -  Zachary Crockett.

Sylvan Goldman's original shopping trolley designs

Sylvan Goldman's original shopping trolley designs Photo: (Google Patents)

Every one seems to have its own individual character too; one jams in the queue so tight you'll never shift it, another pulls to the left, wheels jam or judder uncontrollably, when all that you really want is for them all to behave the same!

Historically the shopping trolley was developed to get us consumers to buy more; it was the brainchild of an entrepreneur and supermarket operator from Oklahoma called Sylvan Goldman who devised a basic shopping cart by mounting two baskets on a folding chair.

Despite some early consumer resistance when it premiered back in 1936 (overcome by the employment of a crew of actors to cheerily push the trolleys round Mr Goldman's shop!), the tactic's worked. Studies have shown that people will buy up to 40 percent more when they shop with a trolley rather than a basket.

But although its basic design has remained largely unchanged for 80 years, the shopping trolley is changing! The world's biggest retailer Walmart is trialling a 'driverless' shopping trolley that will travel around the supermarket and do your shopping for you.

And two of the founders of Skype are working on a robotic cart that takes the goods you buy and delivers them right to your front door at a time that suits you. Now that sounds like progress!

Meanwhile with the arrival or e-commerce over the past 15 years, the trolley has shifted from being a purely physical object to a virtual symbol. Today when you visit any online retailer you'll see that immediately recognisable shopping cart icon in the top right corner of your screen inviting you to add items, save it, and (of course!) to buy just a little bit more.

Get the new RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to This Way Up

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)