The Revolutionary Invention that No One Wanted to Use: The Shopping Cart

A Tulsa entrepreneur saw a need for a fix, forever changing the course of retailing.

By Ivan Fernández Amil

Sylvan Nathan Goldman was born in Oklahoma in 1889. The son of Latvian immigrants, he grew up in a family of entrepreneurs who owned several grocery stores in Tulsa, and from whom he learned the business. When he was 15 years old he started working in one of his uncle’s stores, but after the outbreak of World War I, he decided to enlist.

When the war ended, he joined his brother and some of his family to buy several stores. Business was good, but, as the Oklahoma Historical Society tells us, it was in the 1930s that Sylvan really made it big. In 1934 he bought a grocery chain called Humpty-Dumpty that had just closed its doors, and turned it into one of the largest businesses in central Oklahoma.

This entrepreneur enjoyed finding ways to improve the operation of his stores so as to make life easier for his shoppers. By doing this he thought he could sell more and make more profit. One day, while observing his customers shopping, he noticed that many of them, tired of holding the products in their arms or baskets, were leaving the store. The customers were frustrated by having to carry uncomfortable or half-filled bags, and worried they would break, which prevented them from being relaxed while shopping at the supermarkets.

He understood that if he wanted to increase sales, he needed customers to shop calmly, quietly and comfortably. He didn’t want them to stop shopping just because of those bags and baskets. He had to help his customers to buy more, and so he decided to do something about it.

His first idea was to station some of his employees in the aisles of the stores so they could help customers. As soon as they saw someone fill their basket, they would offer to take it to the checkout and give them an empty one. He tried it out for several weeks, but it didn’t work out because of the difficulty of the logistics, and because the clerks had to go from one side of the store to the other, which made everything more complicated.

According to the news website Jewish Press, in 1936, together with mechanic Fred Young, Goldman came up with an idea that would revolutionize the way we shop forever: Putting wheels on their baskets. To do this, he welded wheels to a chair, and on this he welded one of the baskets he had in his stores. The first supermarket shopping cart in the history of retail was born.

After improving the prototype for several months, they began to manufacture several of these carts. On June 4, 1937 they put them in one of the supermarkets to see how they worked. Unfortunately, nobody liked them. The idea was hugely unpopular. Women found the contraption unaesthetic and uncomfortable to maneuver, while men saw it as a confession of lack of strength.

Goldman was not discouraged and resorted instead to a clever marketing trick. According to CNN, he hired several women and men to walk around his supermarket with the carts, showing that they were shopping and demonstrating their usefulness, while a person at the entrance of the store suggested to the rest of the customers that they should also take a cart.

Now the invention worked. And realizing that the business could be very profitable, Goldman patented his invention.

Little by little, the shopping cart conquered every corner of the United States, and other supermarkets began to ask him to sell them shopping carts. This led to Goldman in 1947 creating his own shopping cart factory: “Folding Carrier,” which had a waiting list of more than two years and made him a multimillionaire.

By 1950, just three years after their introduction, grocery carts had become so popular that stores in the United States began to be designed with them in mind, with more spacious aisles and cash registers to handle large quantities of food.

The original cart got many improvements over the years, such as the “flip-up door” to fit one cart with the next, and the integrated child seat, which were Goldman’s own ideas. Its design has not changed much since then, and is likely to change very little in the future.

The grocery cart changed the world and impacted the lives of everyone. Its invention has spawned countless ideas that have turned retail into one of the biggest businesses in the world. Today, in the United States alone, there are more than 35 million shopping carts, and more than 1 million are manufactured each year.

Goldman looked for a need and tried to fill it. He changed the way we shop forever — with an invention that no one wanted to use and that was not made for the convenience of shoppers, but to make shopping more convenient.