Overconsumption of high-fat and sugar-laden foods is a problem for people in the United States because it contributes to obesity, diabetes, and heart decease. The ubiquitous shopping cart contributes to this problem by encouraging grocery store customers to purchase more than they need. In much the same way that Clarence Saunders’ chain of Piggly Wiggly stores, which first opened in 1916, became an archetype for the supermarket, the first shopping cart, invented by Sylvan Goldman in 1937, created an archetypical category so ubiquitous that it permeates a majority of the retail environment in 2016.
An archetype according to Deyan Sudjic must have “a form that is distinctive enough to successfully create a new category of object.” This form is usually born out of a combination of necessity and ingenuity. In the case of the shopping cart, the advent of the supermarket combined with the spread of commercial refrigeration and synthetic preservatives allowed shoppers to store food for much longer without the worry of spoilage. With these technological advances, a psychological barrier to buying larger quantities of food was overcome, but a very physical one remained: the amount one could comfortably carry around the store in a wire mesh basket. Goldman, an Oklahoma supermarket tycoon, could see his customers heading to the register not because they were done shopping, but because they’d filled the basket or it had become uncomfortably heavy. He was struck with a moment of ingenuity late one night when he realized a folding chair with wheels and two basket holders could be made into a collapsible cart. Thus was born the “Folding Basket Carrier,” and with it the shopping cart archetype. With the exception of the automobile,
it is difficult to find a single object that more profoundly shaped consumer habits in the 20th century.
Despite its importance in driving consumer spending and its culture prevalence as a universal signifier of commerce in both an industrial and post industrial sense, the shopping cart has receive little attention from designers. Unlike lamps and chairs, designers are not ruthlessly competing to create the next iconic shopping cart. In fact, the design has remained relatively unchanged in an aesthetic sense since Orla Watson’s incorporation of a folding back to create the “Telescoping Cart” in 1946.
The cart is utility manifest. It is modernity without pretention. It is the automobile’s silent compatriot allowing for the deleterious distribution of goods to consumers at a previously unimaginable pace. And, it is other things: the cage for young childrens’ squirming legs, the mother’s reliever of jars broken in aisles, the vagrants roaming bottle collector, the car denting parking lot culprit, the inebriated teenagers produce section drag racer.
Although it permeates the American psyche, if a random cross section of the public were surveyed about their emotional relationship to the cart, it is highly unlikely that even one person would elicit a strong affective response. However, when researchers Mihai Niculescu and Collin R. Payne from New Mexico State University added mirrors to the shopping carts in an El Paso supermarket they made an interesting discovery. People who could see an image of themselves while shopping would buy 10% more fruits and vegetables. While the cart itself seems banal, it is the vehicle for food and thereby for the relationship between body image, health and consumption. This is surely one of the most deeply affective relationships that exist in modern American society.
Like many ubiquitous objects of the 20th century, the shopping cart has been seamlessly integrated into the iconography of the information age. Carts on Amazon.com are infinitely large and checkout line displays follow customers around the Internet on banner adds and in paid search results. The temptation of an impulse buy is now at everyone’s fingertips even as they sit to read the morning paper. As the act of grocery shopping moves steadily from supermarket to smartphone the physical acts that make up a trip to the store will be lost. With them, so many affordances will slip away and even the minimal positive feedback loops that exist in the current supermarket model, such as seeing that one’s cart is glaringly sparse on vegetables, will be gone. If signifiers intended to nudge shoppers toward healthier choices are not built into the online grocery shopping experience, the epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease will surely grow worse.
Crockett, Zachary. “How a Basket on Wheels Revolutionized Grocery Shopping,” Priceeconomic.com, 2016.
Moss, Michael “Nudged to the Produce Aisle by a Look in the Mirror,” The New York Times, 2013.
Norman, Don. The Design of Everyday Things. Philadelphia: Perseus Books, 2013.
Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved, the Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2008.
Sudjic, Deyan. “Design and its Archetypes” The Language of Things: Understanding The World of Desirable Object. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.