- Created: 25-09-21
- Last Login: 25-09-21
A trip to the supermarket wouldn’t be the same without the shopping trolley, a utilitarian piece of design that allows us to buy more than we can physically carry. Colin Bisset takes a look at the history of an invention that changed consumerism forever.
The shopping trolley is one of the most successful marketing inventions of the 20th century. It came into existence in 1937 as a by-product of a new kind of shopping experience popularised in the 1920s: the supermarket.
The trolley was the idea of American supermarket owner Sylvan Goldman, who dreamed it up as a way of encouraging shoppers to buy more items in his Humpty Dumpty chain of stores.
The frame was inspired by a folding chair and held two wire shopping baskets, one above the other, doubling the quantity of goods that could be carried. They were unpopular at first because they reminded women of prams and men considered them effeminate. To counteract this Goldman hired male and female models who spent their days pushing trolleys around his stores, leading to their gradual acceptance.
The next big innovation was made by Orla Watson in 1946. He came up with a design with a hinged rear panel which allowed trolleys to be easily pushed together for storage. The Telescope Cart was patented in 1949 and remains the model for most trolleys today. The 1950s saw massive growth of supermarket and mall-style shopping with huge parking areas, making a trolley an almost an obligatory shopping aid. The density of customer traffic made compact storage essential. In 1954, the further refinement of a fold-down seat for toddlers meant that parents were free to focus on the shelves.
Increasing store size has since created demand for larger shopping trolleys to cope with increased sales, and the arrival of self-scanning equipment attached to the trolley handle has simplified the checkout process in some places. In 2013, a jet-propelled shopping trolley reached 70 kilometres per hour in Britain, but the idea has thankfully not been taken up by supermarket chains.
The Edgemar shopping mall in Santa Monica, California, which was designed in the late 1980s by local architect Frank Gehry, has been home to a towering Christmas tree made entirely from shopping trolleys every year since 1995. Created by artist Anthony Schmidt, each tree is over 10 metres high. Although they would appear to be a most appropriate symbol for Christmas consumerism, Schmidt adds that they also remind us of those in the world whose possessions would fill only a single shopping trolley. The first tree's silvery shimmer was, he says, inspired by a friend's mother who had platinum hair.
While the wonky-wheeled trolley has long been a visual gag in film, the abandoned trolley is more often a symbol of urban waste, and many are dumped by roadsides or in waterways. More than one million trolleys are manufactured each year, adding to the millions already in circulation. Most supermarkets now make considerable efforts to retain their property, adding coin-deposit mechanisms to ensure their return in areas of high theft as well as wheels that lock when a trolley is pushed over a magnetic strip set at a mall entrance.
The scale of the shopping trolley has also grown and the supermarket model is now used for everything from furniture shops to pile-it-high discount stores. For some, Sunday wouldn't be Sunday without pushing a trolley around a hardware store or a wine warehouse. Thanks to the increased kinetic energy implicit in the larger size and weight, there have been reports of people being crushed, sometimes fatally, by trolleys. However, many supermarkets today also offer scaled-down versions so that small children will learn shopping habits early. Sylvan Goldman would certainly have approved of that.
Why Don't People Return Their Shopping Carts?
While some supermarkets are better than others, it's probably not unusual to find a few stray shopping carts littering the parking lot to the dismay of shoppers who may think that a parking spot is open, only to find that it's actually being used by a shopping cart. It seems like a basic courtesy to others: you get a cart at the supermarket, you use it to get your groceries and bring them to your vehicle, and then you return it for others to use. And yet, it's not uncommon for many people to ignore the cart receptacle entirely and leave their carts next to their cars or parked haphazardly on medians. During peak hours, it can mean bedlam. Where does this disregard come from?
Some supermarkets have tried to make this relatively easy: they have cart receptacles throughout the parking lot, a cart attendant to bring the carts back to the store, and some may even rely on a cart "rental" system where you pay for the cart and are reimbursed when it's returned. In the instances where there is no rental system, people may leave their carts stranded for some of the following reasons:
The receptacle is too far from where they've parked their car.
They have a child whom they do not want to leave unattended.
The weather is bad.
They have a disability that prohibitive to easy movement.
The perception that it's someone else's job to collect the carts.
They're leaving the carts for someone else to easily pick up and use.
Similarly, there are five categories of cart users:
Returners. These people always return their carts to the receptacle regardless of how far away they've parked or what the weather is like. They feel a sense of obligation and/or feel badly for the people responsible for collecting the carts.
Never Returners. People who never return their carts. They believe it's someone else's job to get the carts or the supermarket's responsibility, and show little regard for where the carts are left.
Convenience Returners. People who will return their carts if they parked close to the receptacle, or if they see a cart attendant.
Pressure Returners. People who will return their carts only if the cart attendant is present or if the adjacent car's owner is present, which means they don't have an easy avenue for abandoning their carts.
Child-Driven Returners. These are people with children who view it as a game to return carts, often riding them back to the receptacle or pushing them into the stacked lines.
Social norms fall into two general categories. There are injunctive norms, which drive our responses based on our perception of how others will interpret our actions. This means that we're inclined to act in certain ways if we think people will think well or think poorly of us. And there are descriptive norms, where our responses are driven by contextual clues. This means we're apt to mimic behaviors of others—so what we see or hear or smell suggests the appropriate/accepted response or behavior that we should display.
Shopping cart, bag or basket?
There is no golden rule.
In any case, since we are talking about an e-commerce website, all you want to do is to reduce the friction in the flow and reduce the cognitive load of the user. Everything has to look familiar and work as expected. Or to put it in UX terms, the system must meet the user’s mental model.
But why is it that sometimes you see websites or apps using different terms for the same functionality, and which is the right one for each case?
The user‘s mental model.
Users form their mental models based on the physical world and the websites and apps they use in their daily lives. So they expect to see a similar functionality to the one that they are used to from their previous experiences, this can happen by using a metaphor to make it easy for the users to think of a concept they are already familiar with. In our case, shopping in a store. So the scenario would be something like this:
Walking into a store.
Adding the products to a cart.
One last chance to think if we got everything.
Go to the registry and pay.
If you think about the physical world, things make kind of sense. You use a home shopping trolley for larger objects, for example, electric appliances — a basket for smaller ones like groceries, and a shopping trolley bag for the smallest items, like clothes.
But why don’t we use the same patterns for digital experiences?
Finding a balance between innovation and familiarity.
What’s wrong with the ‘Cart’ anyways? Well, it just doesn’t fit with every kind of store. Some stores don’t use carts in their physical stores, so it might not make sense to use them in the digital one. Plus, it is also a bit ugly as an icon if you want a rather artistic opinion.
For some reason, the ‘Cart’ became the norm, and it seems that it is tough to break out of the norms. It was Amazon and Zappos in the late 90s that familiarized the idea of the shopping cart and users didn’t seem to have trouble understanding what ‘Cart’ means.The word ‘Cart’ has become the default word when it comes to e-commerce.
In fact, in some cases, websites that use a bag icon in their menu, use the term ‘Add to cart’ in the call to actions just because users are more familiar with the term. But that doesn’t mean that every website should use this. It could confuse the users even more, and you should avoid it.
Many fashion e-commerce websites broke out of that norm. Sites like Macy’s use the ‘Bag’ for years and many other websites followed that example. Nowadays the term ‘Bag’ has become the new norm at least for websites that focus on apparel and fashion. Even a tech company like Apple has shifted to the use of the term ‘Bag’ on their website.