Today in History: Inventor of the Shopping Cart, a Business Worth $802.7 Billion Is Born

Today in History: Inventor of the Shopping Cart, a Business Worth $802.7 Billion Is Born

M.C. Millman

It's easy to take seemingly simple conveniences for granted, so let's recall the Jewish entrepreneur who continues to shape our grocery shopping experience to this day. 

Imagine a world where shopping carts do not exist. A simple, routine grocery trip would be quite a handful. That's exactly what shopping was before the year 1936. 

Sylvan N. Goldman, an American businessman whose father was a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, was born on November 15, 1898. Goldman owned ten self-service stores in Oklahoma City.

Goldman, an ever-evolving entrepreneur, studied his customers' behavior and noticed how carrying baskets to shop presented a limitation for shoppers. According to the book by Terry Wilson called The Cart That Changed the World: the Career of Sylvan N. Goldman, Goldman's first solution was to instruct his employees to approach customers who filled their baskets and offer to put them aside at the check-out counter. This way, customers could carry on shopping with a second basket, thereby increasing revenue. 

One evening in 1936, two folding chairs in Goldman's office presented the solution to his dilemma. As Wilson wrote, Goldman thought, "If the seat of a folding chair was raised several inches and another similar seat added below, a basket could be placed on each of them. Wheels attached to each leg would make the chair mobile, and the back of the chair could be adapted as a handle to push the cart". 

Goldman instructed Fred Young, a handyman in one of his shops, to develop the system. The prototype had several construction issues. For instance, the cart tended to fold when the wheels bumped into something. The cart would also tip over when going around corners. After a few months of work, the shopping cart, equipped with two wire mesh baskets, was finally ready for business.

Sylvan N. Goldman's folding cart, c. 1937 

On June 4, 1937, Goldman advertised his new product in the Oklahoma City Press. The ad presented a woman overwhelmed by the weight of her shopping basket. It read, "It's new – it's sensational. No more baskets to carry." 

Curious about what would solve this common problem, readers were led to Goldman's store to discover the mysterious solution. Unfortunately, the launch plan was a flop. The men felt emasculated, protesting that they were strong enough to carry baskets. The women argued that they had pushed around enough baby carriages in their lives not to want the same yoke in the grocery store. Only elderly customers used them. 

Goldman, however, would not give up. According to Wilson, Goldman placed another advertisement the following week, as mysterious as the first one. He emphatically announced that the "No Basket Carrying Plan" had met with instant approval over the last weekend. Then, he employed men and women in his main store to act as shoppers and use his new basket carts. 

Upon seeing other shoppers using this new system, the customers accepted the store employee's offer of a cart, and the innovation was adopted. Within weeks, all Goldman's stores were using the new shopping carts. Goldman was flourishing.

Seeing this enormous success locally in his own stores, Goldman decided to take his invention to a national scale. He showcased his invention at the first Super Market Convention in September 1937. 

Unfortunately, Goldman was met with overwhelming hesitancy from supermarket managers. They were concerned that their carts would suffer damage from their customers' children and refused to purchase his product. Undeterred, Goldman and his employees produced a movie where they acted as happy customers in a productive supermarket equipped with his carts. The supermarket managers were thus reassured and adopted Goldman's invention, allowing the folding cart to invade the world of mass consumption. 

The National Museum of American History reported that Goldman filed for a patent for his folding basket carriage on March 14, 1938, and received an approved patent on April 9, 1940.

Goldman's new firm, the Folding Basket Carrier Corporation, was an outstanding success. According to Research and Markets, the global market for Consumer Shopping Carts in 2020 is estimated at $802.7 billion. 

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