The Gender Dilemma That Almost Prevented Grocery Carts From Existing

As opposed to open-air markets and takeout, grocery stores remain the way most Americans get food into their homes; one recent Gallup poll found that 97% of Americans visit a grocery store at least once a month, and of those, over 80% go shopping at their preferred grocery store at least once a week.

Since grocery stores are so frequently visited, design and layout are carefully and intentionally designed to influence shoppers and optimize sales. For example, there's a reason why produce and flowers are nearly always placed at the entrance to a supermarket and shopping carts are strategically placed at the exit. Shopping carts are so integral to grocery stores that often the object can serve as a synecdoche for the store itself, and most shoppers can imagine its design without looking at a photo: a large metal cart on wheels with a rear-swinging door and a seat for a child near the handles. However, this grocery cart nearly didn't make it into history due to consumers' initial gendered biases against it.

The grocer behind the invention of the grocery cart

Even though we can't now imagine shopping for groceries without one, the shopping cart has been around for less than a century. It was only in 1937 when Oklahoma-based owner of the Humpty Dumpty grocery chain Sylvan Goldman decided to create a shopping cart that would help consumers purchase large quantities at the newly emerging super-sized grocery stores, per The Takeout. A prototype was made based on a folding chair with wheels and baskets added, a rather large change from the baskets most shoppers carried at the time (via Fast Company). Goldman patented the design, then stole the clever rear-swinging door design that allows carts to be stacked horizontally from a competitor.

Yet, despite the functional and efficient design of the grocery cart that would go on to endure the test of time, both men and women were hesitant to adopt its usage — each sex for different reasons.

The incognito marketing campaign to promote grocery carts

In a letter to the Smithsonian, as reported by Fast Company, Goldman described the challenging gendered biases that prevented people from using his newly invented grocery cart. Women, who were largely housewives at the time, already spent most of their days pushing around strollers, and were not enamored with the idea of having to once again push a cart around. For some men, they felt that using a grocery cart to lessen their load would be an admission of weakness because they would be pushing a cart instead of using their brawn to carry groceries around the store.

Instead of giving up, Goldman decided to use the power of influence to change consumers' minds: he secretly hired attractive models to push the new grocery carts around stores, making the concept seem trendy and appealing (per The Society Pages). Evidently, this campaign worked, and today it's hard to imagine stocking up at a grocery store without the cart.